Bush Steps Up Efforts to Secure Support on Iraq

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials said Friday they were encouraged by a telephone conversation that U.S. President George W. Bush had with President Vladimir Putin seeking support for U.S. action against Saddam Hussein and that differences between the governments over Iraq were exaggerated.

The Kremlin countered that Putin stood firm against a move on Iraq and that his priority was still to send UN arms inspectors back to Baghdad, which the Bush administration's most hawkish members consider a waste of time.

The dueling accounts came after the half-hour telephone call between the leaders Friday morning and a 20-minute Oval Office meeting later between Bush and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The Bush administration's public statements of optimism were echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said his own meetings with the ministers had been productive. "We recommitted ourselves to finding a way forward that would bring Iraq into compliance, and I think they're open to hear our arguments and we're open to hear their arguments," Powell told reporters outside the State Department. "And so the split that has been much spoken about earlier this week I don't think is quite the split that people have portrayed."

Although the Kremlin said in a statement that Putin was adamant about the return of the inspectors, senior U.S. administration officials indicated that the Russians were less resistant to war with Iraq in private than they were in public.

"As this evolves," one senior administration official said, "it's becoming clear that the Russians are not going to be the problem, that the Russians are willing to be agnostic on a whole host of issues. It sounds as if they're resigned that this is going to play itself out in a military confrontation, and they're just more concerned in having what they see as an appropriate role -- political, economic, whatever -- in a post-Saddam Iraq."

The Bush administration continued its offensive on multiple fronts for fast action on Iraq. At the White House, officials formally released the first comprehensive rationale for pre-emptive strikes against nations that aggressively develop biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. (Story, page 14.) On Capitol Hill, talks began on the wording of a White House resolution seeking congressional approval to oust Saddam.

The most aggressive White House lobbying, however, was directed at Russia, which is pivotal to a separate resolution on the use of force against Iraq that the United States is seeking from the UN Security Council. As one of the five permanent members of the council, Russia can veto any resolution, although Bush has made it clear he will act without the United Nations if that becomes necessary. The senior administration official said Friday that Russia would at least abstain on any Security Council vote.

Bush called Putin on Friday morning from the Oval Office and then met with Igor Ivanov and Sergei Ivanov. Later, the Russians met for nearly two hours at the State Department with Powell and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The Russians pressed Powell and Rumsfeld with their concerns about terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge of Georgia and gave Powell information suggesting links between some Georgian officials and terrorist groups. In a speech Friday at the National Press Club, Igor Ivanov said that Russia reserved the right to attack terrorists. "Using concrete facts and concrete evidence and proofs," Ivanov said, "we have demonstrated to our counterparts the magnitude of threat presented to Russia by the guerrillas relocated to the Pankisi Gorge."

Some foreign policy experts said the Russians might be implicitly seeking a free hand to intervene in Georgia, without U.S. opposition, in exchange for acquiescence on Iraq in the Security Council. In addition, the Russians are concerned about recovering $8 billion in debts they are owed by Iraq. Asked Friday if Bush was offering to pay the Russians the $8 billion as an incentive for Russian support at the United Nations, his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said no.

"The incentive the president is offering is logic and a straight, direct, from-the-heart talk about the risks that Russia faces and the rest of the world faces ... from Saddam Hussein," Fleischer said.

U.S. and Russian officials said Putin and Bush would continue to discuss Iraq next month at a summit meeting of Asian nations in Mexico.

By the end of the day, administration officials said that they wanted a vote on the Iraq resolution on Capitol Hill by the week after next and that the meeting with congressional leaders on the wording of the resolution had been positive.

 The first group of UN arms inspectors could arrive in Iraq in early October, Sergei Ivanov said Saturday, Reuters reported.

He said the number of inspectors to be admitted and the sites they would examine would have to be negotiated with Iraqi officials in talks in Vienna that begin Sept. 30.