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Bush, Putin mend fences

WASHINGTON — President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin brought deep differences over postwar Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program to a two-day Camp David summit they began Friday. But they were expected to play down those disputes and emphasize economic and anti-terrorist cooperation.

Bush will appeal for Moscow’s help on a new U.N. resolution on sharing the burden of the reconstruction of and keeping the peace in Iraq. Bush also will renew his objections to Russia’s role in helping Iran to construct its first nuclear power plant, aides said.

Putin has opposed the U.S. war in Iraq and expressed distress over the continuing conflict there. U.S. officials were heartened, however, that Putin’s criticism of the American occupation of Iraq was relatively muted in his U.N. speech this week.

Putin has ruled out sending Russian troops as peacekeepers but may offer limited help as advisers, perhaps as police-force trainers, analysts suggested.

The two presidents also were expected to discuss Russia’s oil resources. U.S. officials see rising Russian oil exports as an alternative to volatile Middle Eastern supplies.

Despite their policy disagreements, Bush and Putin have maintained warm personal ties.

Putin was spending yesterday evening and much of today at the secluded presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains northwest of Washington.

The Russian president arrived a half-hour late on a sunny fall afternoon. A column of Navy sailors and Marines greeted the two presidents, who walked to face a phalanx of reporters.

“Glad you’re here,” Bush said as he threw an arm around a smiling Putin.

The two presidents then shook hands with a small group of aides, including White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Bush drove a golf cart and Putin got in beside him.

Ahead of the meeting, Putin visited the New York Stock Exchange.

He said he hoped for “a breakthrough in our business partnership,” even while criticizing U.S. trade restrictions that are vestiges of the Cold War.

In comments broadcast back home on Russian television, Putin called the restrictions archaic and said, “It is obvious that this causes damage to our relationship.”

Bush has asked Congress to lift the so-called Jackson-Vanik restrictions, imposed in 1974 to expedite the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. Congress has not acted because of disputes over the Iraq war and U.S. poultry exports.

Administration officials said Bush would renew U.S. objections to Russia’s nuclear assistance to Iran. They claim Russian technology is helping Tehran develop nuclear weapons. Russia, and Iran, insist it is helping to build only a power plant for electricity production.

Putin told American reporters in Moscow last weekend that Russia planned to go ahead and sign contracts for the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran. He also urged Iran to sign an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to allow unfettered inspections of nuclear sites.

“If Iran is not striving to develop nuclear weapons, it has nothing to hide. I see no grounds for refusing to sign these (documents),” Putin said.

The $800 million plant is expected to be ready for operation by 2005.

“The international community is coming together, recognizing the seriousness of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Still, McClellan suggested the two presidents would be able to find much common ground.

“There is a new strategic relationship with Russia that the two presidents have worked together to develop,” the spokesman said.

Putin opposed the war in Iraq alongside France and Germany and has demanded a greater U.N. role in reconstruction than the United States wants.

In his speech at the United Nations, Putin indicated his position hadn’t changed but avoided harsh criticism of the United States.

The war in Chechnya also was expected to come up at Camp David.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer warned last week that Moscow’s ongoing military campaign against Chechen separatists was among the most troubling issues facing the Camp David talks.

In his meeting with the American reporters, Putin accused the United States of holding secret talks with rebel representative Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, former president of Chechnya, who lives in Qatar.

McClellan said he could offer no information about that yesterday.

As Bush and Putin headed for Camp David, the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders appealed to Bush on behalf of Arjan Erkel, the head of the group’s North Caucasus mission, who was kidnapped more than a year ago in the volatile Dagestan region adjacent to Chechnya.

In an ad in The Washington Post, Doctors Without Borders urged Bush intercede personally with Putin on behalf of Erkel, a 33-year-old Dutch citizen.


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