Friday, June 30, 2006

MOSCOW — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking unknowingly into an open microphone, chastised her Russian counterpart yesterday for bemoaning the killing of five Russian diplomats in Iraq, saying it was wrong to focus on the deaths of diplomats when so many others are dying there.

“The implication that by somehow declaring that diplomats need to be protected, it will get better, I think is simply not right,” Miss Rice said during a closed luncheon as the foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries negotiated their meeting’s final statement.

The Russians, who chair the G-8 this year, fed out audio from part of the luncheon discussion, apparently by mistake.

The testy exchange came when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who hosted his colleagues, tried to insert in the text a sentence urging the Iraqi government to make efforts to protect foreign embassies in Baghdad.

“It implies they are not being taken and you know on a fairly daily basis we lose soldiers, and I think it would be offensive to suggest that these efforts are not being made,” Miss Rice said. “We are making those efforts, and we are making them at quite a sacrifice.”

Mr. Lavrov said the sentence was “not intended to criticize anyone” and was “just a statement of fact.”

“The Iraqi Interior Ministry should pay more attention to the safety of foreign missions. If you feel uncomfortable about it, maybe we should make it shorter, saying there is a need for improved security for diplomatic missions,” he suggested to Miss Rice.

She interrupted him with some asperity.

“Sergey, there is a need for improvement of security in Iraq period. The problem isn’t diplomatic missions. The problem is journalists and civilian contractors and, yes, diplomats as well,” she said.

“I understand that in the wake of the brutal murder of your diplomats that it is a sensitive time, but I think that we can’t imply that this is an isolated problem or that it isn’t being addressed,” the secretary said.

The final statement “strongly condemned the barbarian killings” of the Russian diplomats, who were kidnapped by al Qaeda fighters, and said that “this tragic event underlines the importance of improving security for all in Iraq.”

The verbal spat between Miss Rice and Mr. Lavrov, which lasted for most of the Iraq discussion, provided a rare glimpse of the atmosphere during their meetings and of behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

The secretary also disagreed with text calling on the Iraqis to “achieve national accord,” saying they are already doing it.

Mr. Lavrov objected to a U.S.-proposed sentence about an “international compact” that would provide economic support to Iraq, telling Miss Rice that the concept had not been entirely fleshed out yet.

In both cases, Miss Rice won the argument, as reflected in the official statement.

The two ministers clashed even in public when Miss Rice repeated U.S. criticism of some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic policies during a press conference. Mr. Putin will host heads of state and government from the G-8 countries in St. Petersburg from July 15 to 17.

“We won’t hesitate to talk about our concerns about nongovernmental organizations or freedom of the press, and we do so in a spirit of candor and cooperation,” she said.

But she added that today’s Russia is very different from what the Soviet Union was like when she first visited in 1979.

“I assure that there have been massive changes in this country since that time and since the Russian Federation was born in 1991,” she said.

Mr. Lavrov countered in an implied criticism of some Bush administration policies.

“I also first visited the U.S. in 1979 and I have been taking note of changes, many of which we strive to discuss with our American counterparts,” he said.

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