By TOM RAUM
The Associated Press
Saturday, July 15, 2006 7:16 AM
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- President Bush on Saturday blamed the Islamic militant group Hezbollah and a compliant Syria for the escalating violence in the Middle East, taking a sharper stance than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bush held Israel blameless while Putin was also critical of Israel's military response.
"The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking. And therefore I call upon Syria to exert influence over Hezbollah," Bush said about the flare-up that could overshadow this weekend's meeting of world powers.
Bush blamed Hezbollah's rocket attacks at Israel from its base in southern Lebanon, and the militant group's capture of two Israeli soldiers for triggering the fierce fighting. Putin agreed it was unacceptable for Hezbollah to try to achieve its goal by using force and abductions.
But while Israel's concerns may be justified, "The use of force should be balanced" and should stop, Putin said.
Their news conference came hours after the breakdown of U.S.-Russian talks to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, a long-sought goal of Putin's. He had hoped to announce an agreement on the WTO before hosting the Group of Eight summit.
The two leaders aren't in complete agreement either on democracy. Russia has come under criticism from some Western leaders for backsliding on democracy and exerting greater state control over the oil industry.
Bush emphasized the importance of individual rights and freedoms. "I fully understand that there will be a Russian style democracy. I don't expect Russia to look like the United States," Bush said. "As Vladimir pointedly reminded me last night, we have a different history, different traditions."
Putin replied: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I can tell you quite honestly." It was a reference to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Putin opposed, and the U.S. imposition of democracy there.
"We know for sure that we cannot strengthen or nation without developing democratic institutions," Putin said. "But, certainly, we will do this by ourselves."
Israel launched its offensive after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the Israel-Lebanon border and captured two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday. Since then, Israel has bombarded Lebanon's airport and main roads while Hezbollah has launched hundreds of rockets into Israel.
Hezbollah is backed by both Syria and Iran.
Both Bush and Putin expressed hope that the intense fighting would end. The G-8 partners were expected to issue a statement on the conflict later this weekend.
Bush said he and Putin, who held two hours of face-to-face talks in advance of the summit, were not able to agree on Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization.
The talks broke off because of differences over assurances the United States was seeking over the protection of U.S. copyrights and patents and promises that Russia would accept greater amounts of U.S. farm goods.
Bush said the administration believed Russia needed to offer more in trade concessions to satisfy the Congress. He said both sides would continue to negotiate to get a deal. The United States is the only country that has yet to signoff on Russia's membership in the WTO.
But the leaders were able to agree on an initiative to combat nuclear terrorism. The new agreement builds on an existing "Proliferation Security Initiative," a U.S.-led group of dozens of nations working together to help seize illicit weapons as they are transported around the world.
The new program, known as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, calls on states to improve accounting, control and physical protection of nuclear material and radioactive substances as well as the security of nuclear facilities.
The agreement pledges joint efforts to detect and suppress illicit trafficking in nuclear, biological and chemical materials _ particularly measures to prevent their acquisition and use by terrorists. Participating nations also will be bound to respond together to mitigate the consequences of acts of nuclear terrorism.
Bush and Putin, who casually called each other by their first names, sought to downplay U.S.-Russia tensions.
Besides the newest Middle East crisis, Bush and Putin discuss ways to deal with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
The United States and Japan insisted that the U.N. Security Council vote Saturday on a proposed resolution condemning North Korea's missile tests. A last-minute proposal brought the divided council closer to an agreement, but the council remains split over one final issue: Should the resolution be adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for the use of military force to make sure the resolution is obeyed.
"I'm confident that we can get something done at the United Nations on North Korea," Bush said.
Bush said he and Putin agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, but Bush declined to say whether he asked Putin to back U.N. sanctions against Tehran to force Iran to abandon uranium enrichment _ a process that can lead to the production of nuclear weapons.
"If the Iranians see that the United States and Russia are working together, they will see the seriousness of our intent," Putin said.