Monday 24 March 2003
WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President George W. Bush scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russian firms' alleged sales of military equipment to Iraq, which could imperil US-led forces in their drive to Baghdad.
The White House said it had "credible evidence" that the companies sold Iraq night-vision goggles, anti-tank weapons, and technology to jam satellite signals that US-led forces could use to guide bombs and military aircraft.
"It's the kind of equipment that will put our young men and women in harm's way. It gives an advantage to the enemy, an advantage we don't want them to have," US Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News Channel.
Powell and US President George W. Bush placed calls to their Russian counterparts, and Bush secured President Vladimir Putin's pledge to "look into" the allegations, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The spokesman declined to say for sure whether Iraqi forces were using the equipment in clashes with US, British and Australian forces but said the material was "not provided for the purpose of sitting on shelves."
Washington had upbraided Moscow "over the past year" about the alleged sales, culminating with Monday's telephone calls, according to US officials, who say the transactions violate UN-imposed sanctions.
"Frankly, we believe we've given them more than enough information so that they should have been able to find out the truth of this," Powell told Fox. "So far, I am disappointed at the response."
Russia has denied the charges, and the Kremlin account of the telephone conversation centered on Putin bluntly warning Bush he must strive to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe" tied to US-led military action in Iraq.
"Putin repeated his existing position on resolving (the crisis over) Iraq and underlined the need to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the region," the Kremlin said in a statement.
The warning came after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that Basra's 1.2 million residents are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis due to a water shortage and fighting around the southern Iraqi city.
The mutual scolding appeared to signal a deepening rift between the United States and Russia, which joined France, Germany and China in firmly opposing US-led military action against Iraq.
The two leaders "speak frankly to each other," Fleischer said, using diplomatic code for sharp disagreements. "There are problems. This clearly is a problem that needs to be resolved."
"These actions are disturbing, and we have made our concerns clear to the Russian government. We've asked the Russian government that any such ongoing assistance cease immediately," said Fleischer.
Since the acrimonious UN debate on a resolution backing war against Iraq, US officials have privately said that commercial ties to Iraq go a long way toward explaining resistance to the war from France and Russia.
A top US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunday that Washington had evidence that personnel from a Russian firm were in Iraq attempting to help set up and operate a system that interferes with US global positioning technology.
Fleischer did not confirm that allegation.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov rejected the US accusations, saying an investigation had yielded no proof that Russian companies have flouted UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq.
"Russia strictly fulfills all its international obligations and has not supplied any equipment, including military, to Iraq in violation of the sanctions regime," Ivanov told journalists.
Ivanov said the relevant Russian agencies had investigated the US claims but "no facts regarding the US concerns were discovered."
But Iraq could have acquired the equipment via a third country, like Syria or Ukraine, according to analysts and officials.
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