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Putin supports 'democratic' Iraq

WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin called Saturday for a "free, democratic, united" Iraq but withheld any commitment to help redevelop the war-torn country until the United Nations approves a new resolution of support.

"The degree and the extent and level of Russia's participation in the restoration of Iraq will be determined after we know the parameters of the resolution," Putin said.

Wrapping up two days of meetings with President Bush at Camp David, the Russian leader also pledged to continue efforts to persuade North Korea and Iran to steer clear of nuclear weapons.

But he said Russia would push ahead with its contract to help Iran build a nuclear power plant — a project that the United States contends could provide the Iranians the necessary technology to develop nuclear weapons.

At the same time, Putin said Russia would send a "clear but respectful signal" to the Iranians to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is pursuing more inspections to determine the extent of any Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Putin and Bush met with reporters at Camp David's helipad at the end of their weekend summit. The leaders, referring to each other occasionally as Vladimir and George, described their meetings in warm, personal terms. But, in their public remarks, they dwelled on mutual goals, rather than on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq or other contentious issues that have divided them recently.

"Because we've got a trustworthy relationship, we're able to move beyond any disagreement over a single issue," Bush said. "Plus, I like him. He's a good fellow to spend quality time with."

Still, there were no major pronouncements in their brief joint statement or the accompanying handful of "fact sheets" on energy, economic development and other issues of mutual interest.

For Bush, the summit followed two days of intensive discussions on postwar Iraq with nearly a dozen other world leaders gathered in New York for the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. Bush came away from those meetings with little to show as well.

Asked Saturday if he were disappointed, the president acknowledged that "some countries are inhibited from participation because of a lack of a U.N. resolution." But he said he was pleased with the level of international cooperation so far and expected it to increase with the approval of a "satisfactory" resolution by the U.N. Security Council.

"We spent some time discussing that today," he said.

In Congress, Bush is facing tough scrutiny over his request for an additional $87 billion for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in public opinion polls, his job approval rating has dropped to about 50 percent for the first time since the 9/11 attacks.

In his weekly radio address, though, Bush pressed on, reiterating his case for the international war against terrorism.

"The world is safer today," because of it, he said. "In the struggle between terrorist killers and peaceful nations, there is no neutral ground."

Responding, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., singled out what she said were "real differences" in policies and priorities between Bush and the Democrats.

"We all understand the importance of helping the Iraqi people, but it need not come at the expense of our schools, roads, health care and jobs here at home," she said. "Americans are sacrificing to make up the difference."

Putin, who had also been in New York, arrived at Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains on Friday for a series of informal discussions with Bush around dinner and again on Saturday.

The Russian president brought with him a large delegation of aides and advisers. And Bush invited his key advisers as well, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The two leaders, however, did all the talking at the news conference.

"For decades, when the leaders of our two countries met, they talked mainly of missiles and warheads because the only common ground we shared was the like desire to avoid catastrophic conflict," Bush said. "In recent years, the United States and Russia have made great progress in building a new relationship."

Later, Putin pointedly asserted that the two nations have been working "not only as strategic partners but as allies" in the war against terrorism.

And Bush pointedly noted that "terrorists must be opposed wherever they spread chaos and destruction, including Chechnya," where Putin is waging a bitter war against separatists.

Still, Bush emphasized that any resolution of that war must also include "respect for human rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections."

On the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Putin adamantly opposed, Bush said: "I understood his position. He understood mine."

In recent days, Putin has held out the possibility that Russia might contribute troops or other resources to Iraq. But on Saturday he made clear that, "This is a very complicated process that should be based on a solid legal and administrative base and should go ahead stage by stage."

"Russia is interested in seeing it occurring as soon as possible," he said, though he offered no timetable.

If Putin does decide to commit troops, analysts suggest, they might not be deployed until after the Russian parliamentary elections this December and the presidential election next March. Even then, any military commitment may not involve combat units but rather other forces to patrol the borders, provide personal security and handle other missions.

"All of that is well within Putin's and Russia's capability and has the added advantage that Bush really needs that," said Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In Iran, inspectors have detected traces of highly enriched uranium that could signal development of nuclear weapons. But Putin declared that "Russia has no desire or plans to contribute in any way to the creation of weapons of mass destruction, either in Iran or any other spot."

"We comply firmly with the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty," he said, "because this course is in our national interest."

While Putin offered no indication that Russia might pull out of its nuclear power agreement with Iran, Bush said he had found his discussion with the Russian leader concerning more aggressive action by international atomic energy inspectors to have been "very satisfactory."

"The most important thing that came out of these meetings was a reaffirmation of our desire to work together to convince Iran to abandon her (nuclear) ambitions as well as to work with other nations so that there is a common voice on this issue," Bush said.