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Putin Prods Bush on Terror

The two presidents have a 'very, very frank' discussion. The Russian leader addresses many fronts in the war and asks, 'Where has Osama bin Laden taken refuge?'

November 23, 2002|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Vladimir V. Putin bluntly cautioned President Bush on Friday to stay focused on all fronts in the war on terrorism even as the international drive to disarm Iraq moves toward a climax.

"Now, where has Osama bin Laden taken refuge?" Putin asked pointedly during a brief news conference with Bush, who had come here to personally reassure the Russian president on NATO's intentions a day after the alliance approved a milestone expansion.

Whether he meant to or not, the Russian president raised an issue that is sensitive with the White House. Increasingly, Democrats in Washington are posing that very question as a way to raise doubts about the progress of the U.S.-declared war on terror and to suggest that Bush may be taking on too ambitious an agenda by going after Baghdad as well.

Since Bush first declared his desire to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive" shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he has backed away from that imperative as the Al Qaeda leader remained at large, explaining that the war is about more than any one person.

Although Putin and Bush joined Friday in demanding that Iraq comply with the recent U.N. resolution to disarm, the two leaders engaged in what they called a candid 90-minute meeting in which they aired their differences on issues from Iraq to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion.

The Russian leader also suggested that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan abet or sponsor terrorists and therefore must be pressured into changing their ways.

He further cautioned Bush to remain within the parameters of the U.N. mandate in leading any international coalition to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to get rid of his suspected weapons of mass destruction.

It was unclear whether Bush was taken off guard by Putin's remarks at the news conference. But Bush did not respond. Rather, he declared an end to the news conference, saying, "We've got a plane to catch."

White House officials initially declined to discuss Putin's concerns. But hours later, a senior Bush administration official told reporters, in a dismissive tone, that the Russian president "has expressed those kinds of concerns for a while, and he's talking about a broader problem. And that's his view and not ours."

Bush arrived here Friday afternoon for his seventh meeting with Putin triumphant after a historic NATO summit in Prague, Czech Republic, that voted to expand the alliance's membership from 19 to 26 -- including the three Baltic states, which once were a part of the Soviet Union.

Bush decided to make a special trip to Russia so that he could tell Putin and the Russian people that they have nothing to fear from NATO's expansion, saying democracy and stability along its western border will be good for Russia as well.

As Bush put it, "Russia is our friend; we've got a lot of interests together."

But it was Iraq that dominated the meeting. Before the men had even sat down for their talks at Catherine Palace outside St. Petersburg, they issued a statement calling on Iraq to "cooperate fully and unconditionally" with the U.N. resolution -- "or face serious consequences." On Thursday, all 19 NATO leaders voted to support the resolution and vowed to take "effective action" to help the U.N. enforce its mandate to disarm Iraq.

But a number of differences apparently arose during the Bush-Putin tete-a-tete. And both presidents alluded to them in their public remarks.

Putin characterized the talks as "very, very frank." Bush, calling the Russian president by his first name, added: "Like other good friends I've had throughout my life, we don't agree 100% of the time. But we always agree to discuss things in a frank and -- in a frank way."

Putin said he and Bush discussed "practically everything between the sky and the Earth," and then he took pains to tell reporters that he had specifically raised the roles of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the context of the terror war.

"We should not give a chance to anyone who is either engaged in terror or who is supporting terror," Putin said.

"We should not forget about those who finance terrorism," he added. "Of the 19 terrorists who committed the main attacks on Sept. 11 against the United States, 16 are citizens of Saudi Arabia. And we should not forget about that." Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

As Bush looked on, Putin then raised the issue of Bin Laden's whereabouts, saying, "They say that [he is] somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Although he expressed support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's efforts to "achieve stability in his country," Putin added: "But what can happen with armies armed with weapons that exist in Pakistan, including weapons of mass destruction? We are not sure on that aspect. And we should not forget about that."

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