In recent comments carried in the Georgian media, the U.S. chargé d'affaires put the number of al Qaeda terrorists there in the dozens.
Some Connection to Al Qaeda?
At the Pentagon, though, Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and the vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, refused to offer many specifics about operations in Georgia, other than to say that plans were in place to offer help to the former Soviet republic since before Sept. 11, and that those talks have continued.
"We've asked the European commander to take a look and see with their counterparts whether or not there's benefit to training and equipping," Pace said. "So if there were a plan that came forward that both governments were comfortable with, then certainly trainers would be a part of that, but we don't know that yet."
The United States delivered 10 UH-1H Iroquois "Huey" helicopters in mid-October, Pace said. The helicopters are unarmed, and were intended to help improve the mobility of Georgia's troops. There are also seven U.S. military personnel to train Georgia's troops in the operation and maintenance of the helicopters.
In addition to the helicopters, some 40 U.S. military personnel spent time in the country last fall to make an assessment of Georgia's needs, according to Lt. Col. Ed Loomis, a spokesman for U.S. European Command.
The Pentagon officials would not say whether any extraordinary threat was seen from terrorists in Georgia, or whether there was anything that differentiated the country from the 50 to 60 other countries where al Qaeda cells are believed to operate.
When asked whether it was possible that members of al Qaeda had gone to the region and whether there was any link between Chechen rebels and al Qaeda, Pace replied: "It is possible. And that is possible."
"There have been some indications of connections, some connections of al Qaeda in that country," Clarke said. "But, going beyond that — saying there have been some connections — is not appropriate."
Adding to the Obligations
The new training mission would mark the third active front in the U.S. war on terror after Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Russia had been hoping to be part of a joint operation in the region, where it has been reluctant to allow U.S. forces to operate independently.
To assuage Russian concerns, U.S. officials said, the military will make an effort at pursuing "transparency" in the operation.
U.S. officials said this would have been "unthinkable" before Sept. 11, and will ultimately prove another example of the United States' warming relationship with its former Cold War enemy.
Russian Reception Might Not Be So Warm
In Moscow, though, Russian officials viewed the American plan with some skepticism.
"Regarding possible U.S. military deployment in Georgia, we think it could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is difficult as it is," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said in an interview with the ORT television network. "That is our position and Washington is well aware of it."
For years, Moscow has said that Chechen separatist rebels used the mountains of Georgia to hide and train, and has had frequent disputes with the Georgia government over the issue.
The Georgia government has troubles of its own with separatist groups in Abkhazia and southern Ossetia, and Moscow and Tblisi have traded accusations about support of terrorists.