Uzbeks don't want Taliban to stop their zina and drinking

ENAU, Uzbekistan, Oct. 16 The old man turned away from the fresh vegetables he was considering buying and extended hands browned and thickened by years of picking cotton. He wore the full-length robe and black skullcap that mark Uzbek nationalists and Muslim peasants.

The man, Ashud Otamuradov, is known locally as an aksakal, a "white beard," and he was speaking about the arrival of American soldiers a few hours to the west, where a former Soviet air base is playing host to the Green Berets. His opinion was strong.

"It is a great thing for us that we have a pact with America to fight the terrorists," he said. "The terrorists should not be allowed to exist at all. It is time to finish them, and to bring them to ruins."

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, anger over America's bombardment of Afghanistan has inspired rallies, riots and cries for jihad. In this small city in the remote Surkhan Valley, a region of former Soviet farming collectives wedged between the steep mountains and the border with Tajikistan, public sentiment seems to run in the opposite direction.

Here, as in much of Uzbekistan, an anti-Taliban disposition serves as a unifying force. The residents say they are glad that their government has granted access to the United States, the former foe from the cold war, to carry the fight against the latest enemy.

"It would be perfect if America would destroy the terrorist system," said Khasan Bozorov, the owner of the Nazzirah Wedding Dress Shop, in an alley near the city's bazaar. "The terrorists have been too much trouble for too long."

True public opinion is hard to measure in Uzbekistan, where a repressive government and the national security police are intolerant of press freedoms and vocal dissent. But residents of this city, many of whom were eager to be interviewed after being approached at random on the street or in their workplaces, said their views were sincere and pragmatic.

The sincerity stemmed from an awareness of the disorder and ferocity that have characterized Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan's neighbor to the south.

It is an example that is made more troubling to Uzbeks because the Taliban and Osama bin Laden have supported the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group of insurgents who have infiltrated the countryside during recent summers and vowed to overthrow President Islam A. Karimov. The movement has pledged to govern the republic under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Although nearly all of Uzbekistan's 24 million people are Muslims, the population is overwhelmingly secular and has little interest in life under enforced fundamentalism.  Janna Rahimova, who owns a bakery, said she would not be allowed such status under strict religious rule. Others spoke of risks that would accompany vices.

"They would prohibit us from drinking vodka, and to make love to another man's wife would become a dangerous thing, with maybe a chance at execution," said Ismat Islamov, a bus driver visiting the city. "Uzbeks don't want that."

To which Ms. Rahimova added: "At last someone is here who can stop them. The terrorists will be killed. It is a good thing, really, to know that they will be gone."

Satisfaction that America and Uzbekistan are allied is also imbued with a sense of Central Asian realpolitik. Throughout history Uzbekistan has been conquered and liberated and conquered again, and as it traded hands it served the designs of many empires. Uzbeks respect power. They are also adept at adjusting their allegiances as empires shift.

Russia's star faded long ago, some residents said. America is the surviving superpower. The United States is not to be resisted, they said, if Uzbeks expect to gain from its might.

"It is easy to see why President Karimov is letting American planes and soldiers come to our bases," said one man in the Denau market, who gave only the name Zokir. "Maybe they were once our enemy, but it is possible now to solve one of Uzbekistan's deepest problems with the hands of a great power."  For all the alignment of interests and calculation of the larger political currents, some Uzbeks said the feeling of support was remarkable, given the physical and psychological distance between the two nations.

All but one of the people interviewed said they had never seen an American before, and with media run by the state and virtually no access to the Internet, they struggle to gain outside information. Throughout the decades of Soviet rule, Uzbeks were given regular doses of anti-American propaganda.

The political conditioning was particularly intensive for the men, almost all of whom served as conscripts in the Soviet military, in which the anti-Western message was a large part of the martial curriculum.  "In those days everything we heard was, `We are good; America is bad,' " said one merchant, who gave the name Rustam and said he had served as a border guard in East Germany from 1972 to 1974. "But our eyes opened with independence, and now a few people from Uzbekistan study in the United States or go there to find work. We hear about America from them and know that the propaganda was wrong."

A crowd of perhaps two dozen gathered around Rustam as he held forth at the entrance to the swirling bazaar. He was passionate. He said the new relationship could bring benefits in the short term and long. He was thinking about the days when the Taliban would be gone and America might reward a new friend.

"This is one of the places where civilizations began," he said. "Now that we are partners with America, maybe civilization can come back."

Then two members of the security police came along, demanding to see documents and scattering the group.