MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin cautioned the United States against attacking Iraq once the war in Afghanistan draws to close, saying in an interview published today that he expects to be consulted before the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign is expanded to other nations.
Although Bush administration officials have openly discussed the possibility that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may be the next target in the war on terrorism, Putin said he has seen no evidence that Iraq finances terrorists. He also said in the interview, with London's Financial Times newspaper, he does not believe that previous U.S. strikes have destroyed any sites where Iraq might be producing nuclear or biological weapons.
Putin's remarks underscored the new diplomatic risks the Bush administration faces as it contemplates the next phase of its campaign against terrorism. Germany and Egypt also have warned that a U.S. strike against Iraq would be viewed far less favorably than the action in Afghanistan.
Although the Bush administration appears divided on how to proceed, its rhetoric against Iraq is escalating. In late November, President Bush warned that if Iraq does not allow U.N. inspectors to survey possible sites of weapons production, Hussein will "find out" the consequences.
Putin took note of the international concern over Iraq, saying the Kremlin had failed to persuade Hussein to allow the inspectors back in after a three-year absence. But he reiterated Russia's position that economic sanctions should be lifted if Iraq cooperates with inspections.
Putin said he is reconciled to the Bush administration's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, although he asserted he could not understand it. Without a treaty to bind the major nuclear powers, he said, Russians fear the arms race might extend to space as the United States seeks the broadest possible missile defense.
He voiced hope for a new treaty to codify current pledges by Russia and the United States to cut their strategic nuclear stockpiles. Russia has proposed a new level of between 1,500 and 2,200 warheads, while the United States has suggested a level of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads. Even if the Bush administration rejects a new treaty, Putin said, Russia will not necessarily lose faith in the relationship.
"It will depend on the way we develop our relations across the board," he said. "If relations between Russia and the West, Russia and NATO, and Russia and the U.S. continue to develop in the spirit of partnership and even of alliance, then no harm will be done."
Calling Bush "a reliable partner" who has not misled him, he said, "I would very much like to have our current level of mutual confidence with the U.S. maintained."
On other issues, Putin said the state has to create the "right conditions" for media organizations, because they cannot survive without outside investment. He was apparently referring to TV-6, Russia's last major independent television station, which is now on the verge of closing. A Moscow court recently ordered the station shut down because of its debts. The station's directors say the action is politically motivated.
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