- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2003

President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, sharply at odds over the war in Iraq, figure to find much more common ground when they meet for a two-day summit beginning Friday at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Mr. Putin’s suggestion over the weekend that Russian troops might participate in an Iraqi peacekeeping force under U.S. command was the latest signal that the two leaders appear determined to patch up a friendship badly strained by the global debate over the war.

The summit provides a “historic opportunity to put U.S.-Russian cooperation back on track, even on some of the hardest questions, such as Iraq and [Russian nuclear ties to] Iran,” said Ariel Cohen, a Russian specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Mr. Putin, who will address the U.N. General Assembly this week before meeting Mr. Bush at Camp David, plans to highlight increased bilateral cooperation in a personal way. He has been improving his English, and will attend a baseball game and visit a U.S. gas station recently purchased by a Russian oil firm during his trip.

While Russia still has reservations about a draft U.S. proposal before the Security Council on Iraq, top U.S. officials say Moscow’s approach to the resolution has consistently been “constructive,” said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Mr. Putin, in a lengthy interview with Western reporters Saturday before leaving Russia, said the difficulties of the postwar period in Iraq have vindicated his stance on the war, but said his government was taking a “quite liberal” stance on the U.N. debate.

“Theoretically, we don’t exclude more active participation of Russia in the restoration of Iraq, including the participation of our military in the normalization process,” he said, but quickly added that the idea of sending Russian troops to Iraq is not currently being considered.

Of Mr. Bush, Mr. Putin added: “He’s a good partner. He’s an open and fair person, and it’s agreeable to work with him.”

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow, in an interview on Russian radio late last week, said he saw “considerable convergence” between Washington and Moscow on a range of issues.

“I think we have very few conflicts of interest today,” Mr. Vershbow said. “We both have an interest in strengthening democracy, in combating global threats such as [weapons] proliferation and the spread of narcotics. … When we have differences, it’s more over tactics than over strategic interests.”

Russian support for a nuclear power plant now under construction in the Iranian city of Bushehr will almost certainly be discussed at Camp David. Russia has proceeded with the project despite U.S. fears that the Bushehr plant is part of a concerted drive by Iran’s Islamic government to obtain nuclear weapons.

But U.S. officials say Russia has moved closer to the American view in recent weeks, as the extent of Iran’s nuclear effort has become clear. Russia has joined the Bush administration in pushing Iran to meet an Oct. 31 deadline set by the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to agree to more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities.

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