MOSCOW, March 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- According to the report, released last week by the Pentagon, two Iraqi documents seized in 2003 indicate that Russia tipped off Hussein on U.S. troop movements in the early days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The report claims Moscow obtained battlefield intelligence from sources inside the U.S. military's central command headquarters in Qatar. The intelligence was allegedly channeled through Russia's ambassador in Baghdad.
Speaking on U.S. television on March 26, Rice expressed concern about the Pentagon's findings and said Russia should "take that very seriously as well."
She said the Bush administration intended to take up the issue with Moscow.
"We will most certainly raise it with the Russian government," Rice said. "I have said several times [that] it is a serious matter, but I don't want to jump out ahead and start making accusations about what the Russians may or may not have known. This is something in a relationship that we have with the Russians that really is candid and where we do talk about difficult things all the time, where I think we will be able to talk about this and talk about it honestly."
Rice said Washington was open to the possibility that Russian intelligence passed the information to Iraq without Moscow's knowledge or other involvement. The Bush administration, she said, will therefore take what she described as "a real hard look" at the documents before questioning Russia. But Rice added that the report, if true, would be "very worrying."
To Be Expected?
Some U.S. observers, however, say no one should find it odd that Russian intelligence would provide strategic intelligence to the Iraqi government.
James Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says it is common knowledge that Russia has helped Iraq both militarily and financially over the years, and notes that Hussein's government had a large outstanding debt to Moscow before the war.
Goldgeier plays down the political impact of the Pentagon report, describing the U.S. response as moderate.
"If the Russians did help the Iraqis in a way that may have cost American casualties, then the United States has to take that very seriously," Goldgeier said. "But I think, actually, the response has not been particularly dramatic. The implication [of the U.S. response] is that Russian intelligence officers [were] acting in ways that the Russian government should look into. But there's been no [U.S.] effort to beat up the Russian government itself."
Russia, however, has so far shown little inclination to be, as Rice hoped, "candid" with the United States about its intelligence activities at the start of the Iraq war.
Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service has dismissed the accusations as "groundless" and refused further comment.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 27 that Washington had "hidden political motives" for publishing the report now. On March 28, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called the spying allegations "nonsense."
Dmitry Trenin, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, predicts the Russian authorities will eventually react by crying foul over the timing of the report. It comes just months before Russia holds its first summit of the G-8 group of industrialized nations in July.
"I am not expecting any declaration from Moscow other than a debate on the fact that the revelation of this information, three years after the beginning of the operation in Iraq, is a way of discrediting Russia in the year during which it heads the G8," Trenin said. "I think this will mark yet another chill in Russian-U.S. relations."
Rice, who served as Bush's national-security adviser at the start of the Iraq war, said she knew nothing of the Pentagon report at the time.
While Rice's public statements on the report have been carefully worded, news that Russia could have deliberately put U.S. troops at risk has generated more passionate reactions in Congress.
Republican Senator Pat Roberts (Kansas), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was not surprised that Russia may have been spying.
"I don't want to cause a major flap here," he said, "but that's what they do."
Some of the toughest comments came from Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts), who urged the Bush administration to review its ties with Moscow and boycott the G8 summit this summer if the allegations are confirmed.
Ties between U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin remain cordial, but Washington has voiced concern at Moscow's foreign policy, which it seems to regard as increasingly hostile to U.S. interests.
Russia's recent overture to Hamas and Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Iran have particularly worried the United States.
Trenin sees the Pentagon report as a sign that Russian-U.S. ties are worsening.
He says Russia's efforts to reclaim its Soviet-era global clout are threatening to set the country on a serious collision course with the United States and Europe.
"The Russian leadership has already officially declared that it will follow its own foreign policy course, independently from the United States and Europe," Trenin said. "Russia is demonstratively working toward rapprochement with China. So the crack that appeared a long time ago in relations between Russia and the West is extending, and it can eventually turn into a precipice, into a rupture, into the onset of a new era in relations between Russia and the West."
The Pentagon's report is the latest in a series of U.S. reports sharply denouncing Russian internal and foreign policy.
The Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, issued a paper on March 5 describing Putin's regime as increasingly authoritarian and urging the White House to stop regarding Russia as a strategic partner.
A few days later, the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report, slammed Russia for backsliding on democracy.
And on March 16, the White House riled Moscow by publishing a new "National Security Strategy." The paper criticizes Russia's democracy record and its foreign policy in Asia and the Middle East.