Russian Rebukes U.S. Over Iraq
By Bradley Graham and David Hoffman
With reporters looking on at the start of a meeting between the two defense chiefs, Cohen calmly countered that President Clinton had exercised "great caution" toward Iraq. He argued that while there were risks associated with military action, the costs of allowing Iraq to continue to flout United Nations resolutions were more significant.
The spirited exchange at Russia's Ministry of Defense dramatized the tensions in U.S.-Russian relations over Iraq.
Russia also issued a carefully worded denial today in response to a report in The Washington Post that U.N. inspectors in Iraq last fall uncovered evidence of a 1995 agreement by the Russian government to sell Iraq sophisticated fermentation equipment that could be used to develop biological weapons. The Post report quoted sources who said the sale could have violated a United Nations-authorized embargo on sales to Iraq of such sensitive materials.
Although Cohen said afterward he was not surprised by Sergeyev's highly critical remarks, a senior Cohen aide acknowledged that the Russian's action marked a sharp departure from usual diplomatic courtesies.
Cohen, on his first trip to Moscow since becoming defense secretary a year ago, sought to dispel any impression that he was personally affronted. But the episode overshadowed the rest of Cohen's talks with Sergeyev and sidetracked the Pentagon leader's initial intention of trying to focus his visit here on the prospects for further nuclear arms reductions and other security issues.
The Middle East has provided Russia with an opportunity to reassert a global role in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, and Russia has been working for months to achieve a diplomatic solution to the crisis stemming from Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. inspectors unrestricted access to suspected weapons sites. In recent days, Russian opposition to a U.S. military strike at Iraq has become more vocal, with President Boris Yeltsin warning twice in the last week that the United States would be risking a "world war" if it took such action. A Russian envoy has been in Baghdad trying to negotiate a compromise.
But today marked the first time the Russians had made such blunt remarks in a public, face-to-face encounter with a U.S. cabinet member. After 2 1/2 hours of discussion, which, after the opening salvos, occurred behind closed doors, Cohen emerged with a visibly more relaxed Sergeyev, who Yeltsin recently promoted to the military rank of marshal. They proclaimed agreement on the need for Iraq to abide by U.N. resolutions, saying their differences were over the means to that end.
Sergeyev said he had raised several compromise proposals on Iraq with Cohen, and the Pentagon chief left the door open for Washington to review them. Earlier this week, the Clinton administration rejected an Iraqi proposal, worked out with the Russians, that would allow limited weapons inspections at eight suspect sites in Iraq under the supervision of diplomats representing U.N. Security Council members.
The Russian plan outlined today, which resembles earlier proposals, would expand the U.N. inspection team and arrange for Russian aircraft to fly surveillance missions over Iraq for U.N. inspectors, in addition to the American U-2 flights that now perform that function.
In response to The Post report on evidence uncovered by the United Nations of an agreement by Russia to sell Iraq equipment that could be used to produce biological weapons, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov told reporters: "We strongly condemn such rude attempts which distort the real state of affairs. Russia has never concluded any deals with Iraq in violation of the existing regime of sanctions, let alone supplied any materials or equipment which may be used for prohibited purposes, in biological or any other fields."
The statement did not deny specifically that negotiations were carried out for such a sale. In fact, in the past, gyroscopes for ballistic missile guidance systems had been sent to Iraq from Russia in violation of U.N. sanctions. Tarasov confirmed that Moscow had received a query about the latest issue Feb. 8 from the United Nations.
Tarasov also responded to Post reporting that Russians have been spying on the U.N. arms-inspection commission and its personnel in New York and overseas. "We resolutely reject this misreporting," Tarasov said, and he called on the commission to issue a denial of the report, which he said included confidential information.
Cohen said he raised the substance of The Post article briefly with Sergeyev, who disputed it in the meeting and again at a news conference afterward. A senior aide to Cohen said the secretary also had been unaware of the U.N. inspectors' discovery.
Participants in the meeting said the subject of Iraq drew only a bit more discussion after the opening exchange and after reporters were ushered out of the room. Most of the session dealt with other security concerns between the United States and Russia, including NATO expansion plans and the Russian parliament's delay in ratifying the second strategic arms reduction treaty -- the Senate ratified it two years ago -- issues that Sergeyev had suggested would be at risk if the United States were to attack Iraq.
"I would like to relate to you our deep concern over the possible prospects of Russian-U.S. relations in the military field, especially if military actions are taken," said Sergeyev, a former head of the Strategic Rocket Forces who is usually taciturn and generally not known as a Kremlin foreign policy spokesman.
"Does the tough and uncompromising position of the United States on the issue of Iraq help to strengthen stability and security in the world?" Noting that today was Abraham Lincoln's birthday, he quoted the 16th president saying: "Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived." Cohen responded that Lincoln's achievements continue "to live today in the United States of America."
News services added from Washington:
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told a congressional hearing the Clinton administration would follow up the report in Thursday's Washington Post that U.N. inspectors had found evidence of a 1995 Russian deal to sell Iraq sophisticated "dual use" equipment that could help them produce biological weapons.
She said the administration had no independent confirmation of the reported deal but noted that "we will certainly follow it, as we see it as a very serious issue."
At another hearing, two former CIA directors said that U.S. airstrikes against Iraq would neither topple Saddam Hussein nor eliminate his biological weapons.
John M. Deutsch told the House National Security Committee that airstrikes may have some benefit and certainly are better than doing nothing, while R. James Woolsey said he supports strikes only as part of a broader strategy to destabilize Iraq's ruling party. "The problem with Iraq will not be solved by an air campaign," Deutsch said.
"If airstrikes occur in the next few weeks, this may be the most telegraphed punch in military history," Woolsey said.
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