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U.S.: National Security Adviser In Moscow To Mend Ties Over Iraq

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was in Moscow today to discuss U.S.-Russia relations as both sides try to patch up differences over the war in Iraq. It is not an easy task. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has made conciliatory remarks in recent days, U.S. officials say they want to maintain control over Iraq's short-term future, a move sure to provoke ire within the Kremlin.

Moscow, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was in Moscow today for one-day talks on U.S.-Russian ties as both sides try to repair relations badly shaken over the war in Iraq.

Rice, a Russia expert, met with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. She was also scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Russian Security Council head Vladimir Rushailo, and other officials. She did not meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rice declined to comment on her meeting with the foreign minister, only telling Interfax that her talks went "very well."

The meetings came as Putin changed tack over relations with the United States following his earlier condemnation of the war.

Speaking at a country residence outside Moscow on 4 April, Putin diverged from public opinion by saying a U.S. defeat in Iraq was not in Russia's interests. "In the solving of any problems -- including those of a global character and crisis situations -- we of course have always cooperated, are cooperating, and will continue to cooperate with the United States," Putin said.

Putin said the two countries have a unique position in the world. "In the political sense, the United States and Russia are the world's biggest nuclear powers, and a special responsibility rests with us to uphold general international peace," he said.

Putin said he would urge parliament to ratify a nuclear arms treaty with the United States after voting was put off last month in protest to the war.

Putin's most recent statements appear to have been aimed at least partly at a domestic audience that has been fiercely critical of U.S. actions in Iraq. Politicians and the press have mirrored widespread popular opinion, which polls say favors a U.S. quagmire in Iraq.

Among the topics under discussion today was an incident yesterday in which a convoy including the Russian ambassador to Iraq and other Russian diplomats came under fire twice as it evacuated Baghdad in the direction of the Syrian border.

Five people were wounded -- one seriously -- in the attack, which took place near the city's outskirts. The Russian ambassador, Vladimir Titorenko, was reportedly among those injured. A Russian journalist traveling with the 23-person convoy said it was caught in crossfire and hit by U.S. forces, which fired first on Iraqi positions.

But the U.S. Embassy in Moscow today repeated statements from U.S. Central Command in Qatar that U.S. and British forces were not engaged in military action in the area in which the convoy came under fire. An embassy spokesman told Interfax that the incident likely took place in Iraqi-controlled territory.

After having been called to the Foreign Ministry yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told reporters that the United States had been aware of the evacuation. "We're obviously very concerned about those who have been wounded. We still do not know which forces were involved," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko today said Moscow was waiting for official information from the U.S. and Iraqi sides on the incident.

Russia -- together with leading war critics France and Germany -- meanwhile wants the issue of Iraq's future to be returned for discussion to the United Nations as soon as possible.

Moscow hopes to play a role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction. Part of its criticism of the war has been based on defending its economic interests, which include oil contracts worth billions of dollars and a Soviet-era state debt of around $8 billion.

Top U.S. ally Britain is also pushing for the UN to oversee Iraq's future, but Washington over the weekend said it wants a U.S. military administration to retain control over postwar Iraq at least for the short term.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading hawk and an architect of the war, said yesterday that the United States was not interested in seeing a UN-led administration in Iraq. Speaking on CBS television, he said a U.S. interim administration would likely run the country for more than six months before turning control directly over to an Iraqi authority.

Rice has also weighed in, saying that "after giving life and blood for liberating Iraq, the [U.S.-led] coalition expects to have the leading role."

The U.S. position appears set to provoke heated debate in the UN Security Council, which fell apart over Washington's decision to go to war.

Andrei Zagorskii is deputy director of Moscow's Institute for Applied International Studies. He said the Kremlin is not happy with the latest U.S. proposals. "Moscow isn't ready to agree to an exclusively U.S.-British postwar [Iraqi] administration with the UN only carrying out a helping role, including providing humanitarian aid and some other functions," Zagorskii said.

But he added that Putin has made a logical choice in softening Russia's tone toward Washington. He said initial Russian criticism of the war helped strain ties and threatened to cause serious problems. "Putin naturally wants to avoid a negative effect. On concrete details, of course there will be disagreements. But the result should give rise to a formula that will be able to take into consideration the interests of all sides," he said.

Zagorskii welcomed Rice's visit as part of a renewed ongoing dialogue over Iraq, saying that although no decisions were likely to be reached, her meetings nonetheless constituted an important step.

Rice was due to travel later today to Belfast, where U.S. President George W. Bush is meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss Iraq's future