U.S. Base Eviction Clears First Hurdle

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- A Kyrgyz parliament committee approved a plan on Monday to close the U.S. air base near the capital, bringing the eviction of U.S. forces from an important Afghan staging point a step closer.

The Cabinet submitted the bill to parliament last week after President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that the Manas base would be closed. Loss of the base would be a blow to U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to enlarge the U.S. force in Afghanistan.

Approval by the defense committee appeared to diminish the chance of a last-minute reversal.

"I am wholeheartedly in favor of the withdrawal of the air base from Kyrgyzstan's territory," said defense committee member Rashid Tagayev. "This is for the security of our country."

Bakiyev announced the closure in Moscow last Tuesday after securing a pledge of more than $2 billion in Russian aid and loans for impoverished Kyrgyzstan.

Russian officials deny pressuring Kyrgyzstan into expelling U.S. troops. But Russia has long resented the U.S. presence in territory it considers part of its rightful sphere of influence.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is dominated by the main pro-presidential party, Ak Zhol, and is likely to pass the bill.

"We support the government's decision," said Hadzhimurat Korkmazov, an Ak Zhol lawmaker.

The bill will be reviewed by several other committees before reaching the full parliament. The decisive vote could come this week, but a Communist lawmaker said his party would seek to postpone it until Russia comes through with the promised money.

The Communist Party line contrasts with official pronouncements, which downplay any suggestion the closure was motivated by Russia's promise of financial assistance.