President Vladimir Putin today called for a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis and said a U.S. military attack would have the "gravest consequences."
"We stand for resolving the problem exclusively through peaceful means," Putin said at a meeting with Muslim religious leaders at the Kremlin. "Any other option would be a mistake. It would be fraught with the gravest consequences. It will result in casualties and destabilize the international situation in general."
Russian officials have expressed concern that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could trigger unrest among Russia's Muslims, who make up more than 13 percent of the population.
"Russia has a community of 20 million Muslims, and we cannot but take their opinion into account. I fully share their concerns," Putin said at the meeting, which was scheduled to discuss an upcoming referendum in Russia's predominantly Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Talgat Tadzhuddin, one of Russia's two top Muslim spiritual leaders, condemned President Bush today in an interview with a Russian television network while in Baghdad, where he was traveling with a delegation of Muslim leaders.
"What they are getting ready to do in Iraq is not just rampaging of a drunken cowboy," he said. "That's playing with the lives of peoples and the world, and no one but God has the right to do that."
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov learned that the United States, Britain and Spain had withdrawn their U.N. resolution just before his plane was to depart for New York to attend Tuesday's Security Council session. His trip was cancelled, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry said.
Today's withdrawal of the U.S.-backed resolution spared Putin the final decision of whether Russia would veto it, as it repeatedly threatened to do. U.S. officials said their Kremlin counterparts clearly hoped that the resolution would not come to a vote.
The Iraqi crisis has forced Putin to weigh his desire to nurture Russia's budding relationship with the United States against his own political interests, as well as Russia's security and economic concerns. Ordinary Russians oppose a war by a margin of 9 to 1, according to recent surveys.
Although the Kremlin denied it publicly, U.S. officials said Russia sent two officials to Baghdad in recent weeks in hopes of persuading President Saddam Hussein to accept exile. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Fox News on Sunday that while U.S. relations with France had been damaged by France's failure to play a "helpful role," relations with Russia had fared better.
"With respect to Russia, we do have some strains as a result of this issue. But I think that with Russia, we'll be able to deal with this and it won't be any kind of even short-term damage to our relationship," Powell said.