Putin rebuffs Blair on Iraq
MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a rebuff to Britain and the U.S., said on Tuesday U.N. sanctions should not be lifted against Iraq until the existence of any banned weapons of mass destruction had been clarified.
Following several hours of talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Putin's presidential residence at Novo-Ogarevo, 40 km west of Moscow, the Russian leader made clear he was not ready to support Blair's call for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq.
He also appeared to question whether former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein really did have weapons of mass destruction, and he called for U.N. inspectors to be given the key role in establishing whether such weapons were in Iraq or not.
If the weapons were still in the country sanctions should not be removed because the WMD could still pose a threat, Putin argued.
"Sanctions can only be removed if there is no suspicion (about the existence of such weapons)," the Kremlin leader said.
Putin told journalists: "We do not know whether perhaps Saddam is still hiding somewhere underground in a bunker sitting on cases containing weapons of mass destruction, and is preparing for blowing the whole thing up and bringing down with him the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."
Putin's tough stand was seen by analysts as an attempt to protect Russian interests in Iraq -- Moscow wants to safeguard its multi-billion dollar debt payments and contracts signed with Baghdad in existence before the war.
Standing next to Putin at a joint news conference, an impassioned Blair warned of the "real danger" facing the world if the international community failed to put behind it divisions created by the Iraqi conflict.
Europe, Russia and others should embrace a new strategic partnership with the United States, he said.
Putin, who along with the leaders of France and Germany opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq, said the threat of Iraq holding weapons of mass destruction had not been fully eliminated even now the war was over.
"So far we have no answers and as long as we have no answers we cannot feel safe. We need to have a legal basis to put an end to this," he said, adding that the United Nations was the only body competent to do this.
"Sanctions were imposed on Iraq on the basis of suspicions that it held weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions can only be removed if there is no suspicion and it is only the Security Council that can remove these sanctions because it imposed them in the first place," he said.
Blair, who went into the talks hoping to convince Putin to agree to an early removal of the U.N. sanctions, warned against the repeat of the pre-war U.N. confrontations and the danger of Russia and Western European countries constantly opposing the United States in international crises.
"The question is, can we find a way forward together for the future... or whether we are going to have the standoff we have had for the past few months," Blair said.
Putin also called for the U.N. humanitarian oil-for-food programme, used during the years of sanctions against Iraq when it was ruled by Saddam, to be extended.
"Today when there is a power vacuum in Iraq we must ensure that the oil-for-food programme is implemented under most strict control by the United Nations," he told reporters.
Iraq has not sold crude under the program since shortly before the war because there is no legal authority in Baghdad.
As Blair met Putin, the leaders of European antiwar states Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg held talks in Brussels to discuss measures to boost defense cooperation. (Full story)