Russia Slams US On Iraq
And 'Liberation' Claim

By Maria Golovnina

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Wednesday fired a new broadside against the United States over its military action against Iraq, scorning claims its troops were "liberating" Iraqis and accusing it of defying world opinion.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, using language at times reminiscent of the Cold War rivalry with Washington, said: "What the United States is doing challenges not only Iraq, but the whole world."
Addressing parliament as U.S. and British forces pressed forward to Baghdad, Ivanov said the evidence so far gainsaid U.S. efforts to portray its troops as a liberating force freeing Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's rule.
"It is already becoming clear how far removed from reality are their attempts to present military action against Iraq as a triumphant march for the liberation of the Iraqi people with minimal casualties and destruction," he told the Federation Council (upper house).
He counseled Washington and London not to make unsubstantiated claims to have found caches of banned weapons in Iraq to justify their military offensive.
"If there are claims by coalition forces about discovering weapons of mass destruction...only international inspectors can make a conclusive assessment of the origin of these weapons," he said.
"No other evaluation and final conclusion can be accepted."
Ivanov, mindful of the political capital Moscow has built up with Washington by backing the U.S.-led war on terror, strove to maintain a balance in his criticism, saying international relations depended on Russian and U.S. strategic ties.
"It is the nature of our partnership that allows us to be honest with each other (and) discuss issues we do not agree on," he said.
A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters in Moscow, played down the significance of Ivanov's comments saying that though U.S.-Russia relations were "strained" they were not irreparably damaged.
"I think strong language in public doesn't help to manage this disagreement, but we focus on the constructive assurances we are getting in private," the official, who requested anonymity, said.
"We also recognize the Russian leadership needs to project a principled position to the domestic audience and to the rest of the international community," he said.
But Ivanov's sharp attack, following President Vladimir Putin's fierce denunciation at the onset of U.S. military action on March 20, nonetheless marked another downturn in relations.
Putin, who needs U.S. support and investment to turn Russia's economy round, has fought to protect his newly-forged ties with President Bush.
But Russia's opposition to U.S. military action against its former close economic partner and Putin's call for a rapid end to military action has brought the relationship under pressure. Russia, with other U.N. heavyweights France and China, tried unsuccessfully to stop U.S. military action to topple Saddam.
All three argued for more time to be given to U.N. arms inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Baghdad denies holding any banned arms.
The atmosphere has been further soured by Moscow's suspicions that Washington will disregard Russia's economic interests in Iraq after the war is over.
Highlighting Russia's fears, the head of a Russian state firm with big oil interests in Iraq said Moscow had little chance of getting a slice of the pie after the war.
"Americans don't need anyone else in Iraq, they will control Iraqi crude themselves. Nobody will give the green light for Russian or French firms in Iraq," said Nikolai Tokarev, head of Zarubezhneft, in an interview with Reuters.
Since the U.S. offensive, the two powers have become locked in a row over U.S. claims that Russian firms have supplied Iraq with banned military equipment including electronic jamming equipment and night vision goggles. Russia denies the sales were made.
And the State Duma (parliament lower house) has delayed a vote to ratify a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty that would slash numbers of deployed warheads held by each side.
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