updated 10/22/2005 9:44:28 AM ET 2005-10-22T13:44:28

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped briefly in this former communist nation Saturday to encourage its efforts to build a peacekeeping force with global reach.

“If there’s anything that’s clear in the 21st century it’s that the world needs peacekeepers,” Rumsfeld told a joint news conference with his Mongolian counterpart, Tserenkhuu Sharavdorj.

The two stood before a white, life-size statue of Genghis Khan, the ferocious horseman who rampaged across Asia and whose image is now used in Mongolia to market vodka, hotels and other local products.

“I congratulate the people of Mongolia, the government and the armed forces of Mongolia for selecting that (peacekeeping) as a principle aspect of their military focus, and certainly the United States is anxious and willing and ready to be of assistance,” Rumsfeld said.

A contingent of six U.S. Marines is working closely with the Mongolian Army, which numbers 11,000 in a nation of 2.8 million people, and the Pentagon is planning to supply the army with body armor and other equipment to help them design a more modern force proficient in peacekeeping duties.

Eager for closer U.S. ties
Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is eager for closer military-to-military relations with the United States and a measure of international prestige for a focus on peacekeeping. Peacekeeping can also prove lucrative; those missions placed under U.N. control pay relatively well.

At the news conference, Rumsfeld was asked whether the Bush administration was interested in setting up either a listening post or a military base in Mongolia, which is a former Soviet satellite state.

“We’ve had no discussions along that line, and I know of no intention to do that,” he replied.

At a ceremony, Rumsfeld spoke to 180 Mongolian Army veterans who had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. He told them that history would look kindly on their efforts, and he thanked them for their contributions.

“It’s a privilege to be able to look you in the eye and say thank you,” he said.

He singled out two soldiers, Sgt. Azzya and Sgt. Sambuu-Yondon, who were on a patrol near Hilla, Iraq, in February 2004 when they fired on the driver of a truck that turned out to be a suicide bomber, killing him and apparently saving a number of lives of Mongolian and other coalition troops.

Rumsfeld also met with President Nambaryn Enkhbayar.

Rumsfeld gets a horse
After his news conference at the Ministry of Defense, Rumsfeld was escorted to a courtyard where he was presented with a Mongolian horse as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.

“I’m going to name it Montana,” he declared, saying the arid, mountainous landscape around the Mongolian capital reminded him of Montana. He also noted that his wife, Joyce, was born in that state.

Mongolian protocol allows for the recipient of a gift horse to take it for a ride. Rumsfeld, dressed in a dark business suit, simply looked the coffee-brown gelding in the mouth, admired the bright blue scarf around its neck and thanked his hosts.

Rumsfeld arrived in Ulan Bator from Seoul, South Korea, where he spent two days in defense consultations, and later Saturday he was flying to Vilnius, Lithuania, where he is scheduled to attend NATO talks on Monday.

Rumsfeld had been scheduled to visit Astana, Kazakhstan, after his Mongolia stop, but that leg of the trip was canceled. U.S. officials said there had been a mixup in scheduling with Kazak officials.

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