- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

From combined dispatches

KOZLOVO, Russia British Prime Minister Tony Blair took a potentially strong hand into talks on Iraq with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, amid signs that the Kremlin may be softening its opposition as the United States and Britain push for tough action.

Mr. Blair and his wife, Cherie, flew to Moscow under a wet snow and then arrived by helicopter at Zavidovo, a presidential residence in the countryside north of the capital. Russian TV showed footage of Mr. Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, greeting the Blairs and the beginning of a meeting inside the residence. Neither leader made comments.

Although Russia continues to oppose military action against Iraq, it has dropped its flat-out rejection of calls for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would lay out strict terms for Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors, as urged by the United States and Britain.

Throughout the growing crisis, Russian officials have notably avoided statements supporting Saddam Hussein, indicating that the Kremlin's stance is dictated primarily by the desire to protect Russia's interests in Iraq.

Mr. Blair has cultivated personal relations with Mr. Putin, becoming the first Western leader to visit after Mr. Putin was named acting president on Dec. 31, 1999. Mr. Putin in turn made Britain his first foreign destination after being elected in March 2000.

The Kremlin is concerned about the $7 billion owed by Baghdad in Soviet-era debt and about whether Russian oil companies would continue to have access to Iraqi petroleum if Saddam is toppled.

Before leaving London, Mr. Blair said Britain and the United States would have to address the Kremlin's economic concerns to win support for a tough new resolution.

"There will be all sorts of interests that countries have, problems that they have of an economic nature for example in relation to Russia. We have to take account of all those questions," Mr. Blair told ITV News.

"But the key thing is to get everyone on the same page, saying to Iraq there will be disarmament of these dangerous weapons. It is not a question of a price tag, but it is a question of making sure that everybody understands why we need to take this action."

Saudi Arabia yesterday said any military action against Iraq should wait until the war on terrorism is finished because it could fuel the terrorists' cause.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, in an interview with the Associated Press, also said that Saudi Arabia won't participate in any attack on Iraq, but short of that would cooperate in a U.N. effort to address concerns about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien yesterday acknowledged for the first time that if the United Nations approved military action against Iraq, Canada would definitely take part.

Mr. Chretien's Liberal government which stresses the need for U.N. weapons inspectors to return to Iraq had thus far said only that it would consider sending troops to a U.N.-backed mission if asked to do so.

"We in Canada believe in international institutions. And if the United Nations were to come to the conclusion that we have to go there to destroy the arms of mass destruction he might have, we will go there," Mr. Chretien told a group of high school students in Ottawa.

In another apparent attempt to avoid a military strike, Iraq yesterday invited the United States to send officials to visit sites suspected of producing weapons of mass destruction.

"The American administration are invited to inspect these sites," said Abdul Tawab Mullah Hwaish, deputy prime minister and minister responsible for Iraq's weapons programs.

Mr. Hwaish also said Iraq was not producing weapons of mass destruction and that U.S. assertions Iraq was producing them were false.

Iraq also said yesterday that U.S. jets raided the Basra civilian airport for the third time, targeting its radar system and the passenger terminals.

In Tampa, Fla., the U.S. Central Command confirmed the attack but said it targeted an Iraqi air-defense radar at the airfield near the port of Basra, 300 miles southeast of Baghdad, after the patrolling jets were fired at from the ground.


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