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Czech Government Pulls U.S. Shield Treaties From Parliament

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek
PRAGUE (Reuters) -- The Czech government has temporarily withdrawn treaties on hosting a U.S. defense radar from a parliament ratification process in the face of an opposition threat to vote them down.

The decision highlighted the center-right government's weakness in parliament and may delay the ratification for months or even put it on ice for an unpredictable period.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration agreed with the Czech Republic to put a radar base southwest of Prague as part of a plan to expand its missile-defense shield against any attack from countries such as Iran.

The plan also calls for a battery of interceptor missiles to be based in Poland, the Czechs' bigger neighbor in central Europe.

"This does not mean we are giving up on the ratification process," Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in a live television address.

"We can return this material to the lower house at any time," he said.

The opposition on March 17 took advantage of the absence of several government deputies to put the issue on the agenda in the lower house, threatening to force a vote which could torpedo the agreements.

Topolanek added that the government would return to the issue after talks with the U.S. administration and the NATO summit in Strasbourg and Kehl.

The summit takes place on April 3-4 and U.S. President Barack Obama then travels to Prague to meet European Union leaders on April 5. The Czechs hold the rotating EU Presidency until the end of June.

Obama has been cooler than Bush on missile defense, saying the need for the system would be reduced if Iran gave up its nuclear program.

However, he has denied he had offered Russia a deal under which the United States would slow deployment of the system in return for Moscow's help with Iran.

Russia sees the missile defense project as a military expansion of the United States closer to its borders, into former Warsaw Pact countries that used to be controlled by the Soviet Union.

There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

Government Position Weakens

The center-right Czech government has been supporting the plan, which would give the NATO and European Union member closer ties with the United States, but a lack of majority in the lower house has repeatedly delayed ratification.

The government has 96 votes in the 200-seat house. The opposition has 97 and the balance of power often lies with a handful of independents who make up the rest.

The government will go through a key test next week, when the opposition plans to hold a no-confidence vote.

Several leftist Social Democrats had considered supporting ratification of the treaties but the party ordered strict discipline in voting against the radar, which is unpopular among about 70 percent of people in the country of 10.5 million.

The treaties have been approved by the upper house, the Senate, where the government has a solid majority.

But the Senate has in return been holding back approval of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, meant to reform the bloc's decision-making, in an attempt to put more pressure on the lower house to push the missile-defense shield through.