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International Help in Iraq a 'Can-Do Issue,' Putin Says

Russian president lauds Hussein's fall but blames the U.S. for possible human rights violations.

September 21, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia — Preparing for a summit with Russia's former Cold War adversary, President Vladimir V. Putin said Saturday that the United States and Russia "could be regarded as allies" in combating terrorism, but he accused the Bush administration of unleashing Islamic extremism in Iraq and committing possible human rights violations in its conduct of the war there.

In a four-hour round table with U.S. journalists before this week's meetings with President Bush, Putin praised the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime and said an international resolution to aid U.S. troops in Iraq is "a can-do issue," but he emphasized that Russia has not changed its view that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

"The currently evolving situation in Iraq is the more than ample confirmation that the Russian position was right," Putin said. "It is a good thing that the anti-democratic, anti-people regime of Saddam Hussein has been demolished. On the other hand, ... an increasing number of Islamic extremists are infiltrating in Iraq who were not there before."

Hussein, he said, "was not supporting all these radical extremists. In fact, he was shooting them, he was expelling them from his country, and currently they're in flying colors in that country. This is a surprise to some, but not to us."

The Russian president, facing international criticism for Russia's human rights record against Muslim militants in the breakaway republic of Chechnya -- most recently from the U.S. State Department, which said the issue could have a "deleterious" effect on relations between the two countries -- held up the United States' own record in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We sympathize with your guys who are doing a hard job in Iraq ... trying to operate at 50 degrees centigrade when you are exposed at any moment to the possibility of being killed," he said. "But are you sure that everything is OK with human rights there?

"Or take Afghanistan: Are you sure everything is OK there with respect to human rights, or should I recall for you some tragic events which have taken place there? Or should I recall Guantanamo Bay? Are [U.S. military prisoners there] protected? Do they have any relief from humanitarian organizations or international law? Who are they?

"If we seek to find problems which will complicate interstate relations, we will find them," Putin said. "We have to get rid of ... the method of teaching each other. We have to become partners and help each other."

The meeting at Putin's opulent residence in a gated compound outside Moscow was a vigorous opening parry for the Russian president's trip to the United States this week, during which he plans to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York and hold two days of meetings with Bush at Camp David.

The issue of Russian participation in a peacekeeping force in Iraq and Russian nuclear aid to Iran will be high on the agenda, along with upcoming presidential elections in Chechnya, in which all serious contenders but the Kremlin's candidate have dropped out of the race. Also, Bush and Putin will focus on prospects for Russia to become an important new supplier of oil and, especially, liquefied natural gas for the United States.

With relations substantially normalized, Russian-U.S. summits are no longer restricted to free market and disarmament issues, and they do not necessarily produce the kind of "turgid communiques and big deliverables" of the post-Cold War years, a senior U.S. diplomat said last week. "These kinds of meetings become more similar to the kinds of meetings we have with our traditional friends and allies," he said.

Putin took pains to focus on the issues on which the U.S. and Russia see eye-to-eye, describing the two nations at one point as "allies" in the fight against terrorism and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He also took pains to emphasize Russia's readiness to back the U.S. on a United Nations peacekeeping force in Iraq under the right terms.

"As you can see, our position is quite different ... from that taken by France and Germany in this regard. Not only do we see a possibility that a settlement takes place with the presence of U.S. troops there, but we also see it possible that they stay at the helm of such activities," the president said.

Still, he said, "in practical terms at present, the question of sending Russian troops is not on the agenda. It's not even being considered right now."

He said Russia's main condition was agreement by the Security Council on the mission, its term of involvement, a plan for economic reconstruction and a political settlement acceptable to all parties, including Arab nations surrounding Iraq.

"We strongly believe as a fundamental matter, the role of the U.N. in postwar reconstruction should be drastically changed. It should be a real role, fundamental, rather than a decoration," he said.

But he said such an agreement was possible.

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