Putin Blasts US War In Iraq

MOSCOW (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin launched a rare but scathing attack on the United States for waging war in Iraq Thursday even as US envoy James Baker arrived in Moscow to persuade Russia to write-off billions of dollars in debt from Baghdad.
On the latest leg of a tour aimed at convincing major creditors to ease Iraq's crushing $120 billion (97 billion euros) debt, Baker met Putin in the Kremlin late Thursday to discuss the amount owed to Russia, the second largest Paris Club lender to Iraq after Japan.
Much of Iraq's $8 billion debt to Moscow - including interest payments - is from military equipment that the Soviet Union delivered to Iraq in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in a war that killed one million people on both sides and ended in a standoff.
But Moscow has been furious with Washington in recent days for barring countries that opposed the war on Iraq from taking part in the lucrative first phase of reconstruction projects for the war-torn country.
No Western or Russian reporters were allowed to attend the Baker-Putin meeting - highlighting their sensitivity.
Only hours before Baker's arrival, Putin used a live question-and-answer session with Russian television viewers to issue some of his most stinging criticism of the Iraqi war to date.
"The use of force abroad, according to existing international laws, can only be sanctioned by the United Nations. This is the international law. Everything that is done without the UN Security Council's sanction cannot be recognised as fair or justified," said Putin.
"I am being as restrained as I can be when I choose these words," Putin added.
Putin described the United States as a partner but also stressed firmly that the Iraqi campaign should not be lumped in with the broader international war on terrorism - as Washington is doing.
"We do not want the United States to lose their war on terrorism. We are US partners in the fight against terrorism," Putin said.
"But as for Iraq, this is a separate matter. There were no international terrorists under Hussein. This is a separate problem," said Putin.
He also suggested that the United States may be showing over-confidence on the international scene and warned that "empires" had fallen before from feeling too strong and using their military might indiscriminately.
His comments came days after Moscow warned Washington that its decision to hog Iraq reconstruction projects was "unacceptable" and began to waver on the issue of debt.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week that Iraq was a "rich nation" that was capable of handling its debt burden because of its vast oil reserves.
But some other officials took a softer stance, saying debt negotiations could be conducted through the Paris Club of creditor nations.
Baker's visit to Moscow has been shrouded in secrecy, underscoring the sensitivity surrounding the negotiations.
But Baker, a close friend of the family of US President George W. Bush, has enjoyed success in other European capitals, winning pledges of support from both French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Baker also received support in talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and met with Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier Thursday in London, where Britain pledged to help persuade other countries to cut Iraq's debt. Paris Club members hold about one-third of Iraq's debt, a total of $41 billion. So far, it has agreed on a moratorium on repayment of the debt until next year, while calling for restructuring as soon as possible.



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