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Putin Waits for a Cue From U.N. on Iraq Aid

September 28, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At the close of a Camp David summit with President Bush on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin praised the "real and mutually respectful partnership" between the two countries but stopped short of offering to help in the U.S. reconstruction of Iraq.

Standing by Bush's side, Putin said any financial or military assistance from Russia -- which opposed the U.S. war to oust Saddam Hussein -- would depend on a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing such aid.

"The degree and the extent and level of Russia's participation in the restoration of Iraq will be determined after we know the parameters of ... the new resolution on Iraq," Putin said through a translator at the Maryland mountaintop retreat.

But Bush and Putin did appear to make progress on their dispute over Moscow's nuclear assistance to Iran, with the Russian leader pledging to press Tehran to comply with international inspections and safeguards to prevent development of nuclear weapons capability.

"Russia has no desire and no plans to contribute in any way to the creation of weapons of mass destruction, either in Iran or in any other ... region in the world," Putin said.

The two leaders, standing at dual lecterns, appeared relaxed and friendly, wearing sport coats without ties and calling each other by their first names. But with limited progress to report, the bonhomie itself appeared to be the summit's main achievement.

"Because we've got a trustworthy relationship, we're able to move beyond any disagreement over a single issue," Bush said. "Plus, I like him. He's a good fellow to spend quality time with."

Relations between Russia and the United States, which warmed considerably after the Sept. 11 attacks, were strained by the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq, a longtime Russian ally. For most of the last year, Russia was allied with France and Germany in opposition to the war.

Although the Bush administration retaliated diplomatically against France and Germany, it refrained from doing the same with Russia. The breach over the war has been considered healed since the two presidents met in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in May.

Nonetheless, Russia still has reservations about U.S. policy in Iraq, insisting that the United Nations take the lead in reconstructing the country. That position did not appear to shift during the weekend summit.

But U.S. officials were upbeat about the outcome, saying Putin's language was conciliatory and boded well for future cooperation.

"We heard what we wanted to hear from Putin, which is that he wants to see a democratic and stable Iraq," a senior administration official said. "He didn't change the subject to bash the United States and start talking about unilateralism. That's important."

On Iran, the United States remains concerned about the Russian construction of a nuclear power plant in the Iranian port of Bushehr, but U.S. officials said Putin's statement on the nuclear issue is a step forward.

"The most important thing that came out of these meetings was a reaffirmation of our desire to work together to convince Iran to abandon her [nuclear] ambitions," Bush said.

The senior administration official said that the United States' main goal in this area was to gain Russia's support for robust oversight of Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And Putin offered just that, saying he would "give a clear but respectful signal to Iran about the necessity to continue and expand its cooperation with IAEA."

In recent weeks, Russia has neared an agreement with Iran that would allow Moscow to retain control of the fuel used in the Bushehr reactor -- designed for civilian energy production -- and return the spent fuel to Russia. That would prevent Iran from using spent fuel from Bushehr to develop enriched uranium for a weapons program.

Recent IAEA inspections have found evidence that Iran may be illicitly developing a uranium-enrichment program, and the United States wants the nuclear agency to dismantle that program before it would be willing to back down on Bushehr.

The two leaders also managed to raise issues of contention without spoiling the goodwill, officials from both countries said. Putin complained to Bush about cumbersome visa procedures for Russians visiting the U.S. And Bush warned Putin sharply that though terrorism is a real issue in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya, Moscow's actions there -- especially violence and human rights abuses by Russian forces -- appear to be making the situation worse.

In his public remarks, Bush pointedly did not endorse upcoming elections in Chechnya on Oct. 7, suggesting that without an improved human rights situation, a true resolution would remain elusive.

"A lasting solution to that conflict will require an end to terror, respect for human rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections," Bush said.

At the same time, Bush praised Russia for being an ally in the U.S.-declared "war on terror." And Putin surprised U.S. officials by saying Russia had been approached by unspecified forces in Afghanistan who wanted Moscow's help in battling the United States.

"I have never said this in public and I'm going to do it today," Putin said. "When [the] counterterrorist operation began in Afghanistan, we were approached by people, through several channels

Both presidents took umbrage at a reporter's suggestion that relations between the two countries are more about words than deeds.

"People expect from us constantly some kind of revolutions," Putin said with exasperation. "Now, just positive development in the relationship is no longer sufficient for them."

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