A series of suicide bombings and shoot-outs between the police and the Islamist opponents of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's authoritarian President, have put the U.S. in a quandary over how to respond to the crackdown that's sure to follow. The U.S. relies on Uzbek military installations for its operations in Afghanistan, but human rights groups say that Karimov has used his allegiance to President Bush’s "war on terror" as a cover for political repression.

For Karimov, the unrest is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the attacks indicate that his police state has not succeeded in crushing the opposition completely – it may be banned, but it is still capable of mounting successful terrorist attacks, as it did in 1999. Back then, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- a group designated as a terrorist organization by U.S. and Britain -- was blamed.

This time, the government is suggesting, less plausibly, that Hizb ut-Tahrir –- a group advocating the formation of Islamist state in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia -- is the mastermind behind the bombings. As the Guardianreports:

"Hizbut Tahrir denied any involvement in the blast and is very protective of its peaceful image. And while the U.S. State Department has showed concern over HT's increasingly hardline rhetoric, Washington and London have yet to declare them a terrorist group. It does seem baffling that, under the omniscient controls of a police state, they can turn from leaflets and prayer to launching a small war on the Uzbek authorities quite so quickly."

The good news for Karimov is that the attacks give him a pretext to continue his brutal crackdown on political opponents like members of Hizb ut-Tahrir , without the U.S. and others complaining too loudly. In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch argues that Karimov's "campaign of religious persecution has resulted in the arrest, torture, public degradation, and incarceration in grossly inhumane conditions of an estimated 7,000 people."

The U.S. State Department, in its country profile of Uzbekistan, says that:

"Uzbekistan is not a democracy and does not have a free press. Many opponents of the government have fled, and others have been arrested. The government severely represses those it suspects of Islamic extremism…With few options for religious instruction, some young Muslims have turn to underground extremist Islamic movements. The police force and the intelligence service use torture as a routine investigation technique. The government has begun to bring to trial some officers accused of torture…The government has granted amnesty to approximately 2000 political and nonpolitical prisoners over the past 2 years. In 2002 and the beginning of 2003 the government has arrested fewer suspected Islamic extremists than in the past. Finally, in a move welcomed by the international community, the Government of Uzbekistan ended prior censorship, though the media remain tightly controlled."

Before the bombings, Uzbekistan was bracing for a possible withdrawal of 50 million dollars of U.S. aid as punishment for its poor human rights record. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has also considered cutting off aid unless Uzbekistan makes progress, which Uzbek officials, pointing to changes in the country's criminal code that punish the use of torture, say it has. The EBRD will issue its decision on whether Uzbekistan qualifies for aid in April.

The U.S. government is due to come out with an annual review of Uzbekistan's human rights record in April as well -- progress on which is tied to aid eligibility. Karimov's opponents are suspicious of the timing of the attacks, so close to international reviews of Uzbekistan's human rights record, and some who have suggested that the government itself may have masterminded the attacks to deflect international criticism.

The Uzbek government has been quick to draw comparisons between the recent attacks and those targeted at U.S. troops and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorism is terrorism, they argue. At least 42 people have died in the wave of attacks that began over the weekend. Several female suicide-bombers in the capital blew themselves up at a bazaar in the capital, Tashkent, while in another incident up to 20 suspected militants blew themselves up during an run-in with the police. Increased police presence, following the attacks, may not necessarily improve the situation, since, as the BBC reports, "all of the attacks seem to be directed at police targets and now there are lone officers dotted around Tashkent's streets, highly visible and vulnerable to attack."

One big reason the U.S. is unlikely to withdraw aid is its interests in Uzbekistan's neighbor: Afghanistan. There are hundreds of U.S. troops using Uzbekistan's military bases for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. says that the attacks point to the necessity of further U.S.-Uzbek military cooperation. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has offered U.S. help in the investigation of the attacks in a telephone call to Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Soquid Safayev. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that:

"These attacks only strengthen our resolve to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike, working in close cooperation with Uzbekistan and our other partners in the global war on terror."

Karimov gained the post of First Party Secretary in 1989 in what was then Soviet Uzbekistan, and he has refused to relinquish his power ever since. Just as Karimov successfully insulated the republic from the political reforms of the Gorbachev era, opposition has not figured much in the politics of independent Uzbekistan. Around 88 percent of the republic's population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Karimov's secular regime brands pretty much all of the religious opposition as "Wahhabis" -- regardless of whether they are or not. The ban on groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir also suggests that Karimov considers Islamic parties the most serious threat to his monopoly on power. Following the bombings, Karimov said that:

"If we look back at the events one by one and try to draw a lesson, I would say that all these attacks were very well planned in advance and the preparation, in all aspects, was from outside. The support came from extremist centers which have large funds and opportunities."

Karimov singled out Hizb ut-Tahrir -- a group formed in Jerusalem in 1952 -- as the prime suspect. Hizb ut-Tahrir advocates the formation of an Islamic state -- the caliphate, which would include the Central Asian state, in which "all of life's affairs in society are administered according to the Shari'ah rules." The group's London representatives have condoned the attacks and rejected Karimov's charges.

The IMU, which has carried out the 1999 bombings, would have been a more believable suspect, but years of government persecution, as well as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, have severely weakened the group. As the Economist points out:

"…the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, grew during the 1990s. Its initial objective was the overthrow of Mr Karimov…and the replacement of his regime with an Islamic republic—though it has since broadened its objectives to seeking Islamic government across all of Central Asia. In 1999 and 2000, it made armed incursions into Uzbekistan from its bases in Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, where it was believed to have 2,000 fighters by 2000. The group is thought to have been largely wiped out during the American-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. It lost its main sponsor, the Taliban, while its bases were destroyed and its leader, Juma Namangani, was reportedly killed during the battle for the Afghan city of Kunduz. Remnants of the IMU are believed to be scattered across the border area between Afghanistan and Tajikistan."

If Hizb ut-Tahrir was not involved in the bombings as it insists and the IMU too weakened and scattered to carry them out, that leaves the possibility of involvement by a third party. An article in EurasiaNet, has emphasized that some of the suicide bombings took place near a bazaar and a store -- places where the police regularly and openly elicit bribes. As EurasiaNet reports:

"There is a growing belief among Uzbeks that the attacks constitute a reprisal against a rapacious police force. Fueling this view is the fact that most of the attacks to date have targeted police officers, while avoiding strikes at government buildings and other strategic installations….

At bazaars across Uzbekistan, police brutality is on display every day. This EurasiaNet correspondent was at the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent recently, observing numerous police shakedowns of vendors, many of whom operate illegally to evade punitive government taxation. These shakedowns were conducted in plain view. In one particularly troubling incident, a police officer viciously kicked an elderly woman who did not move out of the way fast enough."

Uzbekistan's lack of democratic progress and economic reform as well as its strategic importance are reflective of the foreign policy dilemmas the U.S. faces in Central Asia as a whole. Since the end of the Cold War, traditional U.S. military bases in Germany, Italy, and Japan are fading in importance as access to bases in Central Asia are becoming key to the U.S.'s "war on terror." As the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

"The policy has involved not just resorting to military action, or the threat of action, but constructing an arc of new facilities in such places as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and Djibouti that the Pentagon calls "lily pads." They are seen not merely as a means of defending the host countries -- the traditional Cold War role of such installations -- but as jumping-off points for future "preventive wars" and military missions."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz says that these military installations:

"…send a message to everybody, including strategically important countries like Uzbekistan, that we have a capacity to come back in and will come back in -- we're not just going to forget about them."

Whether the U.S. is going to forget about Uzbekistan's political repression -- which has arguably fuelled support for extremist Islamist groups opposed to Karimov -- is an open question. As David Lewis, the head of Human Rights Watch's Central Asia Project says:

"The regime has been given too much of a free ride because it is seen as a partner against terrorism and Islamist extremism…But engagement with it must become much more critical in order to stem the serious, potentially long-term damage being done to the West's credibility in this predominantly Muslim region."