PRAGUE -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg have signed a treaty under which the Czech Republic would host a radar base for a planned U.S. missile-defense system.
The site is a key component of a missile shield Washington says is needed to protect it and its allies against future attacks from hostile states such as Iran and North Korea.
The deal was signed at a ceremony in Prague attended by members of the Czech government.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Rice called it "truly a landmark agreement" for allies facing a "common threat."
Schwarzenberg equally praised the deal, saying, "The primary objective of the foreign policy of any state is to ensure the security of the country. This agreement increases the security not only of the Czech Republic, but of the whole Euro-Atlantic region."
But even as Rice and Schwarzenburg put their signatures on the accord, many steps remain before the facility can be built.
The pact still must be endorsed by the Czech parliament, and the center-right Czech government is short of several seats needed to do so. Instead, the government will have to gain support from opposition politicians who, so far, have stood against the deal.Czech Voters Unconvinced
Opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Czech voters remain unconvinced of the need for the radar site, despite a government publicity campaign to convince them otherwise.
All this makes Rice’s visit to Prague much more than simply the symbolic conclusion of a deal. Instead, she will seek to add her personal appeal to support the radar site at a press conference.
Opponents of the radar deal claim to have raised 100,000 signatures so far against the pact.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Czech governments are still negotiating a separate accord connected to the radar site that would spell out the legal status of U.S. troops on Czech soil. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is not scheduled to be signed in Prague during Rice's visit.
U.S. officials say the radar -- plus a missile base Washington hopes to place in Poland -- are necessary to shield both Europe and the United States from missile attacks. The $3.5 billion shield is projected for completion in 2012 or 2013.
U.S. intelligence suggests Iran could by 2015 develop long-range missiles capable of hitting targets in the United States.Impasse Remains
However, Washington’s hopes to begin construction as early as next year are complicated by ongoing negotiations with Warsaw over the missile site. The U.S. plan calls for placing 10 interceptors in Poland that would be capable of downing incoming missiles tracked by the Czech radar site.
Rice met with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in Washington on July 7 before heading for Prague. The meeting failed to break the impasse, but both sides said they remain committed to striking a deal.
"As regards missile defense, we have clarified our positions, and we've had some productive ideas, and the talks continue," Sikorski told reporters after the meeting.
The Polish government is reported to be seeking substantial U.S. aid to upgrade its military, partly to cope with what it says could be increased threats from Russia if it signs the deal.
Moscow denounces the missile shield as a threat to Russian security and says its construction risks sparking a new arms race. At times, military officials have even threatened to again aim Russian missiles westward if the Polish missile site is built.On to Sofia, Tbilisi
As Rice visits Prague, and then heads for Sofia and Tbilisi, Russia will be very much on the top U.S. diplomat’s mind.
The planned U.S. missile shield is just one of several issues that highlight regional tensions between Moscow and Washington. Another is a recent flare-up of violence in the crisis between Georgia and its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are backed by Moscow.
Rice told reporters as she landed in Prague that “we have said both Georgia and Russia need to avoid provocative behavior, but frankly some of the things the Russians did over the last couple of months added tensions to the region.”
She added, “I want to make very clear that the U.S. commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity is strong.”
That is a message she will undoubtedly take to Tbilisi as her tour of Europe continues through July 10.
Czech Radar Dispute
In June 2007, RFE/RL explored the controversy over the proposed U.S. antimissile system in the Czech Republic.