Aliyev Begins US State Visit Expected to Meet Clinton Friday

TBILISI–Georgia (Reuter)–Azeri President Gaidar Aliyev began a state visit to the United States Monday seeking a bigger American role in ending his country’s conflict with Armenia as well as $10 billion in deals with US oil firms.

Aliyev–arrived in New York late Sunday–and is expected to meet President Bill Clinton and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan at UN headquarters there.

The Azeri leader told reporters before departure from Baku that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be at the top of his agenda with Clinton and Annan.

Azeri officials say Aliyev will also sign three contracts worth $10 billion with US oil giants Exxon–Chevron and Mobil to develop three new offshore Caspian Sea fields.

Baku has already signed deals worth $18 billion with foreign firms to develop its Caspian reserves. Aliyev will be signing the new deals on behalf of state energy company SOCAR.

Azerbaijan is trying to parlay its increasing world energy importance into political clout to try and woo the West to its side in the conflict with Armenia–which killed more than 35,000 people before a 1994 cease-fire came into effect.

The Azeris have always blamed the large Armenian Diaspora–with its well-organized lobby–in the United States for what it says is a pro-Armenian attitude in Washington.

But the fact that the visit is taking place at all is a huge propaganda coup for Baku over Yerevan and indicates that Azerbaijan’s energy importance may already be paying political dividends.

Levon Ter-Petrosyan is the only one of the three leaders of the ex-Soviet Caucasus republics not to be invited by Clinton to Washington for talks this summer. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze visited last week.

Ter-Petrosyan is still in the West’s doghouse over charges that he rigged last year’s presidential vote which re-elected him. International observers say it was marred by irregularities.

A US congressman Friday said he will introduce legislation next week to immediately lift a five-year ban on humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan to coincide with Aliyev’s visit.

"America’s national interests are being ill served by our current policy in the Caucasus," said New York Republican Congressman Pete King–who is also vice-chairman of the International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

"It is within US national interests to send aid to the former Soviet state to further encourage Azerbaijan’s move toward democracy," King added in a statement.

Pro-Armenian groups in the United States have vowed to protest Aliyev’s visit.

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