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Gates: No need for US forces in Georgia

    WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday he sees no need to invoke American military force in the war between Russia and Georgia and that U.S.-Russian relations could suffer for years if Moscow doesn’t retreat. The White House said it was ignoring Russian ‘‘bluster’’ about Georgia never regaining disputed border regions.
    At the same time, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Paris issuing another urgent call on Russia to honor a previously announced cease-fire with Georgia as she was getting ready to bring the formal agreement to Tbilisi for signing Friday by the president of Georgia, a democratic former Soviet republic now strongly aligned with Washington.
    French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who has been leading Western efforts to stop the fighting, said the documents are ‘‘intended to consolidate the cease-fire.’’
    At the Pentagon, Gates described a broad humanitarian effort for Georgians displaced or harmed by the fighting. He said there isn’t any need for U.S. fighting forces there, although the relief effort is being run by the U.S. military. At his side for a news conference, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said the military assesses that Russia is ‘‘generally complying’’ with the truce that called for its withdrawal from the hostilities.
    He said Russian forces appeared to be forming up in Georgia in preparation for withdrawal.
    ‘‘It’s difficult at the tactical level to know each and every engagement in each town,’’ Cartwright said, ‘‘but, generally, the forces are starting to move.’’
    Gates said the Bush administration last year started talks with Russia that officials hoped would develop a long-term strategic partnership. The idea was to give a backbone to the U.S. relationship with Russia across military, diplomatic and economic spheres. But Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the weeklong fighting that followed has called that into question, he said.
    Gates told reporters he believes Russia has decided ‘‘to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West.’’
    Asked what he thought the Russians are hoping to gain from the fight, Gates said he thinks they are trying to redress what they regard as the many concessions forced on them amid the breakup of the former Soviet Union. They want to ‘‘reassert their international status,’’ he said.
    Also Thursday, the administration said it will ignore ‘‘bluster’’ from Russia about the future of separatist regions at the heart of the conflict.
    ‘‘The United States of America stands strongly, as the president of France just said, for the territorial integrity of Georgia,’’ Rice said following a meeting with Sarkozy.
    Russia and Georgia have agreed to a truce but Russian tanks and troops remain. Rice was heading to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi with the document and had no plans to visit Moscow.
    The pact fleshes out a French-brokered agreement, worked out this week, giving Russian peacekeepers the express right to patrol beyond South Ossetia, the disputed border regions at the heart of the conflict.
    U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the pact is not finalized, said there are important clarifications still to be made and that the U.S. would support additional powers for the Russian peacekeepers only if they were limited, well defined and temporary.
    There were Russian peacekeepers in two disputed regions before fighting began, and those forces would remain. The difference now would be that the South Ossetia peacekeepers could venture beyond the small mountainous tract if need be.
    The official said Russia demanded the expanded mandate for its peacekeepers.
    The truce plan was agreed to by both sides but not yet in full force, and it left some details vague.
    Russia’s foreign minister declared earlier Thursday that the world ‘‘can forget about’’ Georgia’s territorial integrity, strongly suggesting that Russia could absorb the regions where it has supported separatist movements in a goad to Georgia since the election there of a strongly pro-American president.
    ‘‘I would consider that to be bluster from the foreign minister of Russia,’’ White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. ‘‘We will ignore it.’’
    Russia’s president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of the separatist provinces, another signal that Moscow could absorb the regions.
    At the State Department, spokesman Robert Wood expressed concern over reports that Russia is deliberately sabotaging Georgian military infrastructure. ‘‘We are very concerned about these reports; it is a serious situation,’’ Wood said.
    The facilities were not identified by American officials, who said the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi was investigating.
    Of the relief efforts, Wood said more than $2 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance had been delivered to Georgia and that three convoys had transported 202 Americans from Georgia to Armenia, the third one carrying 32 Americans.
    Explosions were heard near Gori on Thursday as a Russian troop withdrawal from the strategic city seemed to collapse and a fragile cease-fire appeared even more shaky.
    Meanwhile, the United States poured aid into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in a Pentagon mission directly challenging Russia’s military moves to retake territory in the former Soviet republic.
    Two aid flights were carrying cots, blankets and medicine for refugees displaced by the weeklong fighting. The shipment arrived on a C-17 military plane, an illustration of the close U.S.-Georgia military cooperation that has angered Russia.
    The United States government is reeling from the near collapse of its closest friend among the former Soviet republics, a strategic Black Sea nation that is an emerging pathway for undeveloped energy reserves and that has worn its zeal for America and the West as a badge of honor.
    As the United States mustered humanitarian aid for Georgia, President Bush demanded that Russia end all military activity inside its neighbor and withdraw all troops sent in recent days onto Georgian territory.
    All this appeared designed to answer criticism that Bush has not done enough to stand by his 2005 pledge, made from the center of Tbilisi before tens of thousands of citizens, to ‘‘stand with’’ the people of Georgia.
    The president postponed Thursday’s planned start of a two-week Texas vacation for a couple of days to monitor developments.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven, Lolita C. Baldor, Barry Schweid and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report; AP Writer Matthew Lee reported from Toulon, France.


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