The Pentagon is to privatise its military presence in Georgia by contracting a team of retired US military officers to equip and advise the former Soviet republic's crumbling military, embellishing an eastward expansion that has enraged Moscow.
After a Georgian appeal for support to the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, during a visit last month, a team of 20-30 private defence consultants are already in Tbilisi. Their employer, a Washington security firm, Cubic, has a three-year $15m contract with the Pentagon to support all aspects of the Georgian ministry of defence.
A senior western diplomat said: "One of the goals is to make the army units capable of seizing and defending a given objective. The consultants will work with US defence liaisons in the US Tbilisi embassy and the European command in Stuttgart." He said the programme could continue for much longer than three years.
About 60 US military trainers arrived in Georgia in the summer of 2002 to help the dilapidated military deal with the perceived threat of terrorists linked to al-Qaida hiding in the Pankisi gorge, on the border with Russian Chechnya.
The "train and equip" programme, which left the Kremlin silently fuming at a Pentagon presence on its southern border, was supposed to end this year.
Georgia has long sought a US base on its soil. "Our desire was to continue the train and equip programme, and [Mr Rumsfeld's response to our request] was this idea," Tedo Japaridze, the foreign minister, told the Guardian.
A Georgian security official said the Cubic team would also improve protection of the pipeline that will take Caspian oil from Baku to Turkey through Georgia. Georgia has already expressed its gratitude by agreeing to send 500 troops to Iraq.
The western diplomat said the US was also considering creating in Georgia a "forward operational area", where equipment and fuel could be stored, similar to support structures in the Gulf.
The two moves would combine to give Washington a "virtual base" - stored equipment and a loyal Georgian military - without the diplomatic inconvenience of setting up a permanent base in a country where Moscow already has two controversial bases.
Under an international agreement, the Russian facilities should be dismantled within three years. But Mr Japaridze said: "We have been having that discussion for five years, so it is quite surreal." The Kremlin has said it will withdraw by 2011.
The diplomat said there remained 80-100 Chechen militants in the Pankisi gorge. He said "a handful" of them were international terrorists linked to al-Qaida, and that they could move across the borders, particularly into Azerbaijan. Georgian officials have long insisted that the gorge is no longer a problem.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that President George Bush secretly wrote to Eduard Shevardnadze in the week after his resignation as Georgia's president, thanking him for his historic decision that brought a bloodless end to weeks of mass protest.
A source close to the ex-president said: "The letter was personal. It said he had made a very good choice, and that the new leaders lacked experience and could benefit from his." Mr Japaridze confirmed the letter was "personal in nature".
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