A brutal political crackdown in Azerbaijan left U.S. officials embarrassed and confused over how to deal with the Central Asian country, a strategic ally in the war on terror.
Authorities arrested hundreds of political opponents, journalists, and local election observers following the Oct. 15 presidential election. Official results showed lham Aliyev, the son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, winning 77 percent of votes over Musavat Party candidate Isa Qambar. Widespread reports of Aliyev-directed fraud, and a raid by police on Musavat headquarters, triggered street protests by thousands in Baku. At least one protester died and dozens were injured.
The Aliyev regime assisted U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has contributed several hundred soldiers to coalition forces in Iraq. The outgoing president, who served as head of state for 35 years but is now ill in a U.S. hospital, also paved the way for a U.S.-backed oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
After the election, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a congratulatory phone call to the younger Aliyev. But as U.S. monitors began to question the results ("Minimal conditions for democratic elections were not met," said Nelson Ledsky, of the National Democratic Institute), Mr. Armitage had egg on his face-especially for a former co-chair of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. The State Department later denounced the results and called for an independent investigation.