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Russia Says U.S. Should Give It More Leeway in Standoff With Iraq

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a rebuff to U.S. saber-rattling, Russia’s top diplomat said Friday that the effort to resolve the confrontation with Iraq over its refusal to allow unfettered United Nations weapons inspections has only just begun, and he indicated that the United States is being too hasty in warning of imminent military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

“We are a little more patient,” Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said pointedly at a news conference after his talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whom the Russian diplomat urged to give more time to Moscow’s efforts to resolve the dispute with Baghdad.

Instead of closing the gap between Washington and Moscow about what to do regarding Hussein’s intransigence, the quickly arranged talks with the Russians at the Madrid airport served only to accentuate the disagreements at a critical juncture in the showdown with Iraq. Friday’s developments were a setback for American efforts to build a strong international consensus to issue an ultimatum to Baghdad that it must comply with the U.N. disarmament regime.

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Meanwhile Friday, Chinese Ambassador Qin Huasun read to reporters at the U.N. a statement urging “restraint” and calling for further diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraqi crisis.

“China is against the use or threat of use of force,” Qin said, coupling his implicit warning to the United States with a renewed request to Baghdad to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

China has assumed a larger role than usual at the Security Council as the confrontation with Iraq has continued. Qin repeatedly has opposed the use of force and, according to sources present at closed-door meetings of the council, has joined Russia as an advocate for Iraq in council debates.

Beijing could become a major stumbling block for the United States only if the Americans seek formal Security Council backing for airstrikes against Iraq.

It seems increasingly likely, however, that if the United States goes forward with a military assault it will do so without seeking prior, specific Security Council backing.

In Madrid, Primakov--who spearheaded a successful Russian effort last fall to ease another blowup over the U.N. disarmament program, when Hussein sought to eject American members of the weapons inspections teams--observed that “Russia stands for and remains in favor of diplomatic measures.”

Albright expressed appreciation for Russian efforts this week, including the dispatch of a senior Russian envoy for two days of talks in Baghdad. But she also bluntly noted strong doubts that Russian mediation will lead Baghdad to reverse course.

“Despite all their best efforts, I am skeptical that diplomacy will solve this problem,” Albright told reporters. “Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence that Iraq is negotiating for any reason other than diversion and delay.”

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After the two-hour session here, a senior administration official said Albright made “very clear” to Primakov the deep U.S. concern that only the determination of the outside world “to do what is necessary” will thwart Hussein’s ability to acquire, keep or use weapons of mass destruction.

The United States is becoming frustrated by what it sees as Russian stalling without any indication of Iraqi interest in finding a compromise.

In talks in the airport VIP lounge, Primakov, an Arabic-speaking Mideast specialist, outlined what Viktor Posuvalyuk, a former Russian ambassador to Iraq and his emissary to Hussein, discussed with the Iraqis on his recent mission to Baghdad.

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U.S. officials indicated that the Russian envoy made no significant progress. “Nothing was said in the meeting that gave her new reason for optimism,” a senior U.S. official later told reporters traveling with Albright, noting that “Primakov had no silver bullet” to solve the crisis.

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U.S. officials tried to stress that Washington and Moscow are united in their determination that Iraq comply with U.N. resolutions and allow weapons inspectors into all sites they wish to visit, including presidential palaces. Iraq has resisted such inspections, asserting that the palaces are sovereign territory.

Meanwhile, in a sign that even the Russian hierarchy may have doubts and divisions of its own about Iraq, the respected daily Izvestia issued an unusual criticism of Primakov in its early Saturday editions, accusing him of making the Kremlin “a hostage of the double-dealing Saddam Hussein’s changing moods.”

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“Whatever the outcome of negotiations between Yevgeny Primakov and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Madrid, it is already clear that the November success cannot be repeated,” the newspaper observed. “Moscow is no longer viewed as an impartial mediator capable of keeping Baghdad from taking rash steps.”

Primakov is usually the object of lavish praise in Russian media, which are nominally independent in the post-Soviet era but, perhaps out of habit, are seldom at odds with the official line.

Russia is not expected to be the only country on Albright’s whirlwind tour of Europe and the Mideast that is reluctant to see the United States unleash against Hussein the powerful arsenal now assembled in the Persian Gulf.

Besides Russia and China, Albright also faces resistance among key Gulf states that have Hussein as a neighbor. Like the Russians and the French, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain all are concerned about what would follow any military action, if the crisis should reach that point.

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European and Arab allies fear that American policymakers, with their immediate focus on possible military actions against Hussein, have not considered the long-range issue of what finally is to become of Iraq politically, economically and strategically. This is the single most common reservation that Albright is hearing expressed about the U.S. strategy in her talks, European and Arab envoys say.

But Albright made clear to Primakov, as she is expected to tell Gulf leaders on her three-nation swing to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain on Sunday and Monday, that her mission is “to explain,” not to seek full approval of the U.S. stance, the senior official said.

In Washington, National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger stressed to a small group of reporters that the United States will use whatever means necessary to cut Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and threaten neighboring countries.

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“If the Iraqis reverse themselves and let [U.N. weapons inspectors] come in, allow them complete access, that would be the best result,” he said. “If that is not possible . . . we will have to consider other options, including military options.”

Berger said the purpose of military strikes would be twofold: to significantly diminish Iraq’s capacity to make and stockpile biological and chemical weapons and to reduce Hussein’s ability to threaten his neighbors. Earlier this week, Albright said U.S. military action would not be aimed specifically at removing the Iraqi leader from power.

Berger added that the U.S. is prepared to support an initiative to increase to more than the current $2 billion the amount of oil Iraq is permitted to sell every six months to purchase food and medical supplies for its civilian population. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to propose such an increase in the next few weeks.

At the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, Annan said it is still too early to predict whether force will be used against the Hussein regime. “We have seen this sort of thing happen in the past. Iraq has gotten to the brink and backed down again. So this cannot be excluded,” he said.

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He acknowledged that some of the 15 Security Council members still were resisting military action.

But he, like all the key players, said Hussein is to blame for the current confrontation and the world’s reluctance to lift the economic sanctions against Iraq.

“It is up to the Iraqis to cooperate fully with the U.N. to get [arms] inspections out of the way and see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Annan said. “If they did that, no one would be talking about the possibility of force.”

Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Moscow, Craig Turner at the United Nations and Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this report.

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