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USA UK and Malta News
23/10/2007 - 22:26

EditoWeb USA NeWs: U.S. Considering Missile Defense Delay

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, clearly seeking to mollify Moscow, said today that the United States might delay activating its planned East European missile defense sites, even as President Bush pleaded vigorously with Congress to fully finance the sites, which he said would meet an “urgent” need for European missile defense.

Mr. Gates’s remarks, which enlarged on recent comments by other American officials, came during a news conference in Prague with Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the Czech Republic.

The defense secretary said that the American antimissile system might not be activated until Iran took some concrete action, such as testing its own missiles.

He also said that the United States planned to make the two main installations — a radar site in the Czech Republic and missile base in Poland — more transparent to Russia. One idea floated for doing this would be an exchange of observers.

Mr. Gates’s talk of leaving the system inactive until Iran posed a concrete threat seemed strangely counter to the message of urgency that Mr. Bush delivered hours later in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

“With continued foreign assistance,” Mr. Bush said, “Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe before 2015.” He said the time to act was now.

But linking the two messages were references by both men to an apparently cooperative new approach with Russia that might clear the way for the project.

American officials have spent months trying to cope diplomatically with bitter opposition to the missile defense plan from Moscow, which sees the American missile facilities as a potential threat. One Russian official even warned of aiming strategic missiles at European targets in response. Relations between the United States and Russia seemed headed for a post-Cold War low.

Following concerted American efforts to reassure Moscow, though, the Russians’ tone began to change over the summer. At the Group of Eight summit meeting in Germany in June, President Vladimir Putin proposed that the American system use Russian radar facilities in Azerbaijan to help track any Iranian missiles, an idea Mr. Bush did not reject out of hand. Mr. Bush then said he had invited Mr. Putin for a rare visit to the Bush family home in Maine.

This month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who speaks Russian, visited Moscow with Mr. Gates. They reportedly presented proposals that included an invitation for Russia to join with the United States and NATO in designing and operating an antimissile system meant to protect all of Europe, and suggested that Russian and American officers to be stationed as liaison officers at each other’s missile defense sites.

While the visitors seemed at first to meet a frosty reception — Mr. Putin made a snide reference to building missile defense sites “somewhere on the moon” — officials said the two cabinet secretaries were greeted more warmly behind closed doors. They said the proposal was presented as part of a larger package to include the future status of Kosovo and the question of whether Russia will carry out a threat to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

In Prague, Mr. Gates said Washington and Moscow were still in touch about the issue. “We continue to encourage the Russians to partner with us in missile defense, and continue our efforts to reassure them that these facilities are not aimed at Russia and could benefit Russia.”

While saying that he expected American negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic over the system to be concluded this year, Mr. Gates also proposed linking the activation of both sites to “definitive proof of the threat, in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on.”

Though Mr. Gates said this proposal was not yet “fully developed,” his comments confirmed a report on Saturday in the International Herald Tribune. The newspaper quoted Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, as saying: “The Americans have made a substantial and fundamental offer. I sincerely hope the Russians will pick it up.”

In his speech in Washington, Mr. Bush again underscored that the East European sites are not aimed at Russia, and in any case could quickly be overwhelmed by Russian forces.

“The Cold War is over,” he said. “Russia is not our enemy. We’re building a new security relationship whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation.”

He said that while the United States intended to go ahead with its plans for 10 missile interceptors in Poland and what is called an X-band tracking radar in the Czech Republic, the radar facilities in Azerbaijan and southern Russia offered by Putin “could be included as part of a wider threat-monitoring system.”

Prime Minister Topolanek agreed with Mr. Gates that a Czech-American agreement on a new radar facility could be completed by year’s end, but the political situation in Poland is not quite as clear.

Donald Tusk, the politician expected to become the next Polish prime minister after elections this week, is said to have taken a tougher stand than the outgoing government on talks with the United States about a missile site.

Tentative American plans call for completing construction on both sites by 2013, at a cost of several billion dollars.

Mr. Bush’s remarks at the National Defense University were intended in part to prompt Congress to budget more money for the missile project.

Lawmakers opposed to the missile defense system have moved to cut $139 million from the funds proposed this year for the European sites, Mr. Bush said. He said this could “delay deployment for a year or more, and undermine our allies, who are working with us to deploy such a system on their soil.”

The president portrayed the threat from ballistic missiles as large and growing: The number of countries with such missiles had grown from 9 in 1972 to 27 today, not all of them friendly, he said.

He said a sound missile defense would both deter a missile attack and, — by clearly reducing the chances that a missile attack would succeed — — help dissuade countries from pursuing nuclear weapons.

h.V/ On line news

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