ARLINGTON, Va. — The United States and Serbia signed a Status of Forces Agreement on Thursday in Washington, opening the door to military partnerships between two countries that just seven years ago were at war.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Serbian President Boris Tadic signed the agreement in a formal morning ceremony held in the State Department’s historic Treaty Room.

The SOFA is an important step in the ongoing normalization of relations between the two countries, and a sign of the increasingly warm relationship between the two militaries, according to Maj. Gen. Zdravko Ponos, chief of staff of the Serbian army.

“We’ve already made good progress in the last few years,” with initial exchanges of a few students at military academies in each country, last month’s donation of $1.2 million worth of flood-control equipment by the U.S. European Command, and a new partnership between the Serbian army and the Ohio National Guard, Ponos told Stars and Stripes in a Thursday interview in Washington.

“Having a SOFA means that we can conduct joint exercises” and otherwise expand those initial cooperative efforts, Ponos said.

On Friday, Ponos will travel to Ohio to meet with its adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt, and discuss the possibility of bringing some guardsmen to Serbia for a small exercise, he said.

In return, Wayt is scheduled to visit Serbia at the end of September to visit some troops and make further plans.

A joint exercise “could even be this year — it depends on the Ohio National Guard,” Ponos said. “We are ready for any size [unit] and we will appreciate it.”

Before heading to Ohio, Ponos was also scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Asked what the Serbs are asking the Pentagon for, Ponos promptly replied, “education.”

“It’s good to have equipment and money, but more important is education and experience,” Ponos said. “Some day, equipment gets old, and money, you can spend.”

“We want to become partners, and develop interoperability,” Ponos said. “If you are drawing campaign maps using different colors and symbols and can’t understand each other’s [maps], it’s difficult to have joint exercises.”

Military education has other benefits, Ponos said.

In times of tight budgets, “it is not expensive and it shows good political will. It can help us in changing mind-sets” on both sides, Ponos said.

Changing U.S. military’s perception of Serbia is very important to Ponos.

“So many American soldiers served in the Balkans, but have not visited Serbia,” he said. “Many of them have some prejudice, unfortunately. We want to give them opportunities to visit Serbia and Belgrade, and see the other side.

“Serbia today is not Serbia 10 years ago.”

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