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Russia: Moscow Continues Criticism Of Possible War In Iraq

Moscow today continued its opposition to a U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq following yesterday's critical report to the United Nations Security Council by chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. The Kremlin stepped up its protests ahead of the report and will likely continue insisting UN inspectors prolong their work. But analysts say there is little more that Moscow can -- or will -- add to the debate, and that it will instead allow France and Germany to lead the antiwar call.

Moscow, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With war looming in the Middle East, Russia today continued its opposition to possible U.S. military action in Iraq, saying United Nations weapons inspectors must be given enough time to carry out their work.

Moscow stepped up disapproval over a possible war yesterday as chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix presented a report to the Security Council criticizing Iraq for not fully cooperating with inspectors.

Brushing aside Washington's claims that Iraq is hiding its weapons of mass destruction, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement ahead of the report saying the inspectors should be given whatever time they need to complete their work. Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko repeated the call on Russian television: "According to the preliminary information that we have, the [UN weapons] inspections in Iraq are continuing without any problems. We believe that only the UN and IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors can answer the question as to whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not."

Putin set out Moscow's position in a telephone call to British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday.

With U.S. President George Bush expected to outline justification for a possible war in his annual State of the Union speech this evening, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov urged compromise today. In an interview with NBC television, he said unilateral U.S. military action could split apart the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism.

Blix's report bolstered Washington's claims that Iraq is not telling the truth about the state of its weapons program. Speaking in front of the Security Council on the results of 60 days of inspections, Blix questioned Iraq's commitment to disarmament. "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace," he said.

Speaking after Blix, IAEA head Mohammad el-Baradei was more conciliatory toward Iraq, calling for several more months to finish inspection work.

Washington says it does not need international approval to launch a campaign against Iraq, but reports say it looks set to grant two more weeks for inspections. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday that "time is running out," with some saying a decision to go to war might come as early as next week.

In Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said yesterday the Blix report should not be seen as a final stage in the inspections. "[UN Security Council] Resolution 1441 doesn't set out any time limits for international inspections in Iraq," Fedotov said in remarks reported by Interfax. He added that Russia would continue calling within the Security Council for inspections to go on.

Russia is a permanent member of the body, a position that gives it veto power over any resolution. Fellow war critics France and China are also permanent members, making matters difficult for Washington in any potential debate over a new resolution authorizing war.

Russian President Putin joined the U.S.-led fight against terrorism following 11 September, but Moscow has continued criticizing what it sees as Washington's unilateralism on the global geopolitical stage. The Kremlin has also moved to forge closer ties with U.S. opponents including Iraq, a traditional Soviet ally. Moscow says it is keen on safeguarding billion-dollar oil contracts in the oil-rich country.

Although Russia has consistently and vociferously criticized the U.S. position on Iraq, it has been France and Germany that have taken the lead in recent weeks as tens of thousands of U.S. and British troops mass in the Middle East.

In a sign that Russia may already be softening its stance, Putin today said Moscow's position against Iraq could toughen if Baghdad obstructed inspectors' work.

Aleksandr Konovalov, president of Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessments, said it would be difficult to stop the mobilizing U.S. war machine. Iraq's refusal to fully cooperate -- especially its withholding of information about weaponry discovered during the previous inspections regime -- only makes war more likely.

But he said the two factors will still not necessarily lead to military conflict. "A lot of this will much depend on pressure on the Americans from outside. But I'd say it won't likely be from Russian pressure. Russia won't exert a lot of pressure, in my view. Russia will express its opinion, Russia will say [an attack on Iraq] is not right, but we will hear significantly more hard-line positions from the French and the Germans," Konovalov said.

Robert Nurick is director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. He said Moscow has already made its plan clear. "I don't think they're looking for a fight with the United States about this. But I do think they -- along with the French and others -- will push at least for more time on this. There have been some reports here I've heard that they may push for some kind of a compromise simply about the timing of this, but what those reports are based on I don't know," he said.

Nurick added that Moscow does not have much leverage with the United States on the issue -- but that Washington likely wants to keep the Kremlin "at least minimally satisfied" in the event of an attack.

Konovalov, meanwhile, said it would make little sense for Washington to begin a campaign without the agreement of Russia and other critics, not least because a war would further cripple an ailing domestic economy and fuel already significant opposition to conflict within the United States.