Friday, September 26, 2003

President Bush yesterday welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Camp David, Md., where the two leaders planned to discuss Iraq’s reconstruction and Iran’s nuclear proliferation.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said other topics on the agenda for the summit, which culminates in a press conference today, include the Middle East conflict, the war on terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, the White House signaled a willingness to compromise with Congress about the president’s request for $20 billion to rebuild Iraq. Some lawmakers, including Republicans, are demanding the money be structured as loan guarantees, not an outright grant.

“We’re continuing to fight for the package as we outlined it and as we presented it to Congress,” Mr. McClellan said. “But, obviously, we recognize this is a process where we work together on it.”

The $20 billion is part of the president’s request for $87 billion to fight the war on terror for another year. Congress has not balked at the bulk of that request, about $67 billion for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Still, the administration is aggressively seeking funds and troops from other nations to relieve overstretched U.S. forces. Mr. Bush is expected to press Mr. Putin for support this weekend, even though Russia joined Germany and France in opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“There are times when we have some disagreements,” Mr. McClellan said. “But he’s not afraid to raise those issues.”

The spokesman was also referring to the issue of Iran’s nuclear proliferation.

The Bush administration has long accused Moscow of helping Iran develop a nuclear-weapons program. Russia has denied the charge, although it has made no attempt to hide its $800 million deal to build a nuclear reactor in Iran for the purpose of generating electricity.

The president told reporters on Thursday he would broach this topic with Mr. Putin. The timing is particularly critical because traces of weapons-grade uranium were recently found at a second site in Iran by inspectors from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.

The White House attempted to downplay friction between the two presidents on this topic. Mr. McClellan said the administration is encouraged that other nations have recently become concerned about an issue that the United States has been highlighting for years.

“The international community is coming together, recognizing the seriousness of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” the spokesman said. “It’s something that we have been talking about for quite a while, and now you have the rest of the international community recognizing it.”

On the topic of Iraq, some analysts expect Mr. Putin to try to trade his support on reconstruction for a chance at lucrative contracts in Iraq. Russia is still smarting over the loss of revenue from the elimination of Iraq’s oil-for-food program.

Also yesterday, the White House defended its $20 billion Iraqi reconstruction against suggestions that some of the funds would go to unnecessary luxuries, such as mail service.

“It helps bring about a civil, orderly, functioning society,” Mr. McClellan said, noting that it was “one of the very first steps that we took here with our own Continental Congress back in 1775.”

“It’s important to bringing a new nation together, and supporting the growth of commerce, and ensuring the free flow of ideas and information, just like it was for America many years ago,” he added.

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