Russia Warns U.S. on Iraq

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russian officials from President Vladimir V. Putin down made clear Thursday Russia's strong opposition to any U.S. military action against Iraq.

Putin said Iraq is not among the countries that supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, so there is no cause for a U.S. military strike. And Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov warned that an attack on Iraq could undermine the global coalition against terrorism.

Their comments came after President Bush indicated Wednesday that he will not rule out a preemptive strike to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Russia has been cultivating relations with all three nations named by Bush last month as an "axis of evil": Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

At a Kremlin news conference Thursday, Putin said Russia knows which countries supported the Taliban in Afghanistan and "Iraq is not on this list." But he acknowledged that the international community has problems with Iraq.

"We are actively discussing these issues together with our partners in the United Nations and U.N. Security Council, and searching for ways to solve these problems," he said.

Iraq expelled U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, raising suspicions that it is trying to rebuild weapons of mass destruction.

One of the first victims in any strike against Iraq could be the relationship between Moscow and Washington, which warmed in the wake of Russia's wholehearted support for the U.S. war on terrorism.

Ivanov said Thursday that the anti-terror campaign must be founded on sound legal principles and that branding countries an "axis of evil" is inappropriate. He also said that any U.S. military strike must be approved by the Security Council.

Dmitri Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma's international affairs committee, said in a phone interview with The Times that Russia has been pressuring Iraq to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

"We think that Iraq is really overdoing it, refusing to substantially change its inflexible policy toward the prospects of cooperation with the U.N.," he said. But he added that there is no evidence of Iraq's involvement in terrorism against the U.S.

"We think that peaceful methods of pressure on Iraq are far from being exhausted," he said.

Rogozin also said Iraqi opposition groups are not as organized as Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was, suggesting that any U.S. military action would require a major ground operation.

"In Iraq, the USA won't achieve much by just throwing darts around. They will have to shed a lot of blood before they realize that Saddam Hussein has escaped and is safely hidden somewhere where they can't reach him," Rogozin said.

The hail of Russian opposition Thursday to the prospect of U.S. action against Iraq came even from members of Yabloko, a liberal party.

Vladimir P. Lukin, a former ambassador to the U.S. and leading Yabloko member, said U.S. military action against Iraq would be opposed almost unanimously around the world.

"If the United States does not like the regime of Saddam Hussein and wants to have it overthrown by force, that is a violation of international norms because no evidence has been given of Hussein's relationship with international terrorism and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," Lukin said.

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