There's more than meets the eye to the frantic U.S. efforts Friday to talk Russia and U.S. ally Georgia out of war over an obscure mountain tract most Americans have never heard of.
A look at the map and your gas credit card bill shows why.
South Ossetia is claimed by Georgia, the former Soviet republic that cast its lot with the United States and the West to the eternal irritation of Moscow. The breakaway province has been under Russia's sway for years.
Georgia sits in a tough neighborhood, shoulder to shoulder with huge Russia, not far from Iran, and astride one of the most important crossroads for the emerging wealth of the rich Caspian Sea region. A U.S.-backed oil pipeline runs through Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while bypassing Russia and Iran.
The dispute makes the Bush administration the middleman between a promising ally it wants to help and the powerful former adversary next door whose help it needs.
Washington praises democratic development in Georgia, delights in its contribution of combat troops for Iraq and acknowledges valuable intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation.
Moscow's cooperation is vital to numerous Washington aims in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.
"For all those reasons and the fact that Georgia has demonstrated that it is a close ally, we cannot simply sit by and say `so be it, what does South Ossetia mean to us?'" said Janusz Bugajski, director of the new European democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Georgia as a whole means quite a lot."
The pipeline that crosses Georgia can pump slightly more than 1 million barrels of crude oil per day, or more than 1 percent of the world's daily crude output. The 1,100-mile pipeline carries oil from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea fields, estimated to hold the world's third-largest reserves. Its potential vulnerability was already in the spotlight after it was sabotaged this week, apparently by Kurdish separatists.
Most of the oil is bound for Western Europe, where gas prices are even higher than the $4 and more a gallon that U.S. consumers are now paying. With only so much oil to go around, what the pipeline carries affects prices elsewhere. The United States also hopes it will be a model for other development projects that could have a more direct effect on the U.S. market.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone Friday morning, appealing for calm in South Ossetia, a patch of craggy farmland that is home to about 70,000 people — fewer than live in Youngstown, Ohio. In a statement later she reiterated U.S. commitment to Georgia's "territorial integrity."
President Bush discussed the violence with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, while the presumptive Democratic and Republican candidates to replace Bush issued worried statements. Tanks rolled as Bush spoke.
Hundreds were reported dead in the worst outbreak of hostilities since the province won de facto independence in a war against Georgia that ended in 1992. Witnesses said the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was devastated.
South Ossetia is one of the few places where ethnic, nationalist or other complications mean that the Cold War went dormant but didn't die. U.S. diplomats refer to these neighborhood squabbles as "frozen conflicts," a euphemism that belies the long-recognized threat that seemingly petty disputes can easily provoke a wider war.
The United States, European nations and others raced Friday to keep the conflict from spreading. The State Department appealed for a cease-fire and prepared to send a mediator to the region.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made, said the envoy was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, a specialist on the region. The timing of the trip was unclear.
"We are asking our friends, and the United States among them, to somehow to try to mediate and try to persuade Russia to stop this military aggression and invasion of Georgia," Vasil Sikharulidze, Georgia's ambassador to Washington, said in an interview.
At the Pentagon, a senior defense official said Georgian authorities have asked the United States for help getting its approximately 2,000 troops out of Iraq. The request is apparently related to the fighting in South Ossetia.
Georgia has been the third-largest contributor of combat troops after the United States and Britain.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions have been private, said no formal decision has been made on whether to support the departure, but said it is likely the U.S. will do so.