- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Russian officials played down a wide-ranging economic cooperation agreement with Iraq yesterday, saying the accord was not as extensive nor as expensive as Iraqi officials had suggested.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Malakhov said in a statement released in Moscow that the pact, which could be signed as early as next month, contains no dollar-amount targets and will not violate U.N. sanctions that sharply restrict trade with Iraq.
"As to reports that this deal is worth between $40 billion and $60 billion, this agreement does not specify any figures," he said. "It is a framework agreement."
Despite President Bush's oft-stated intention for "regime change" in Iraq, U.S. officials have been restrained in comments on the Russia-Iraq pact.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said U.S. officials have not seen the reported agreement, "but obviously, we would expect that [any accord] would be consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolutions."
Iraqi officials, eager to play up any cracks in U.S. plans to isolate the regime, have made ambitious claims for the accord, which the two sides apparently have been discussing for more than a year.
Abbas Khalaf Kunfuth, Iraq's ambassador to Moscow, made details of the accord public in an interview with The Washington Post over the weekend.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, who is slated to visit Moscow next month, said the economic cooperation agreement would cover such areas as energy, chemical engineering, railroad construction and transportation, and could last a decade or more.
But aides to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the accord would last only half that long and that no dollar figure is attached.
Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's strong rhetorical support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism since September 11, Moscow has kept active diplomatic and financial ties with all three members of Mr. Bush's "axis of evil."
The news of the agreement with Iraq came less than a month after Moscow announced plans for a major expansion of cooperation with Iran on nuclear-power development, despite strong U.S. criticisms of Russian aid to a plant under construction near the Iranian town of Bushehr.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who traveled to Moscow earlier this year for talks with Mr. Putin, was scheduled to arrive in Russia's far east today on another of his rare foreign excursions.
News of the economic deal with Baghdad met with criticism in the Russian press yesterday. The influential daily Izvestiya questioned in an editorial whether new deals with impoverished Iraq were worth jeopardizing Moscow's relationship with Washington.
Iraq owes Russia an estimated $8 billion for past infrastructure and energy development projects. But as the world's second-largest energy producer, after Saudi Arabia, Russia has little need of Iraq's vast oil deposits.
Mr. Kunfuth, the Iraqi ambassador, denied in a press conference in Moscow yesterday that Baghdad was using Russia as a "Trojan horse" to stave off a U.S. military strike.
"Iraq regards Russia as its main and basic partner in its economic relations," he said.

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