February 11, 2006

Rumsfeld Seeks Stronger Military Ties in Maghreb

By Will Dunham

TUNIS -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Saturday the United States wanted to strengthen military ties with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and played down the threat posed by al Qaeda in the three North African states.

Rumsfeld arrived in Tunis after a NATO meeting in Sicily to begin a three-day visit to the Maghreb -- his first to the region as defense secretary -- and praised Tunisia's support in the U.S. campaign against global terrorism.

"They have been attacked by terrorists in this country," Rumsfeld told reporters at the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage.

"They have felt the sting of that type of violence," Rumsfeld added. Tunisia blamed al Qaeda for a suicide bombing in 2002 against its main Jewish shrine which killed 14 people, most of them German tourists.

Rumsfeld said that after visiting Tunisia he would travel to Algeria and Morocco. The United States has longstanding military ties with Tunisia and Morocco and recently began such relations with Algeria.

"We are continuing to participate with each one of these three countries in one way or another on a military-to-military relationship. And it's something that we value and want to strengthen," Rumsfeld said earlier in the day.

Rumsfeld said the three nations had been "constructive partners" in the campaign against global terrorism and would not be fertile soil for groups like al Qaeda to put down roots.

"There are certainly places in the world that are attractive for terrorists and terrorist networks. They tend not to be countries like these three. They tend to be areas that have large ungoverned spaces where the governments attitudinally are more tolerant toward extremism. And that would not be the case in any one of these three nations," he said.


Rumsfeld said he would discuss counter-terrorism with the countries, among other topics.

"Each country has in its way been providing moderate leadership and been constructive in the problems of the world and the struggle against violent extremism," he said.

Rumsfeld met Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as well as Defense Minister Kamel Morjane. He said topics discussed included Iran's nuclear ambitions and Tunisian political reforms, but offered no details.

Tunisia, a nation of 10 million people sandwiched between Algeria and Libya on the Mediterranean Sea, won independence from France in 1956 and has taken a moderate stance in foreign relations while repressing Islamic fundamentalism.

Security sources and analysts in the region said Tunisia, as well as Morocco and Algeria, are concerned about efforts by the fundamentalist Islamic guerrilla group al Qaeda to build support in the region for its campaign against the United States and other Western countries.

Intelligence sources in the region said al Qaeda had recruited scores of young men in North Africa and helped them enter Iraq to join the insurgency there, where some of them have died in suicide bombings.

"As with Egypt, we're nudging Tunisia to be creative and reform-minded, and it's delicate," said a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Rumsfeld.

A statement released by Tunisia's government said Ben Ali "reiterated Tunisia's unwavering stand against all forms of terrorism and extremism" and emphasized the country's determination to support international efforts to calm the situation in the region.