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Biden To Soothe Polish, Czechs On Missile Defense

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden heads to Central and Eastern Europe to soothe concerns from Poland and the Czech Republic about Washington's revamped plans for a missile-defense system there.

The two countries are still smarting from President Barack Obama's decision to shelve a Bush-era plan to install elements of a missile shield on their territory to protect against possible long-range missile attacks by Iran.

Obama's plan, which the White House says is designed to face more immediate threats from Tehran, would start by deploying sea-based interceptors and then, in a second phase, land-based systems that would target short- and medium-range missiles.

The United States has already told Poland it could be one of the sites for the interceptors, and that topic -- along with general concerns about the new plan -- is likely to come up at meetings Biden will hold with leaders in Warsaw and Prague.

Biden will also make a stop in Romania.

"The vice president will talk about...a strong commitment to missile defense and to a better system, a more effective system than the one we had originally proposed," Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters.

He acknowledged lingering concerns about the new U.S. plans but said European nations had shown greater support for them as more details had been explained.

"The more allies have been focused on the details and the specifics, the stronger the support has been," he said.

Blinken said the Obama administration was eager to have both nations involved in the new system.

"What we need to do though is work with Poland to find a role that they find suitable, and then we can discuss how we move forward on it," he said, declining to elaborate on the Polish response to a U.S. offer that Warsaw have the right of first refusal to host the land-based interceptors.

"The Czech government has expressed a strong interest in continuing to play a leadership role as we work with our NATO allies on this issue. And that's something that we welcome," he added.

Russia opposed the original U.S. plan and welcomed Obama's shift. Blinken reiterated the U.S. position that resetting previously strained relations with Moscow would not come at the expense of other allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned last week from a visit to Russia where she sought Moscow's cooperation on U.S. missile-defense plans.

Afghanistan, Iraq, and energy security are also topics likely to be discussed on Biden's trip.