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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sounding Out Russia on Hussein

Can the United States get Russia on board for a war against Iraq if UN sanctions fail to drive President Saddam Hussein from power?

That is one of the intriguing questions to be raised when President George W. Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin. U.S. officials are eager to see just how cooperative Moscow will be in dealing with countries such as Iraq and Iran.

A senior U.S. diplomat, who recently briefed journalists about the summit, indicated that the Bush administration is willing to make any military action against Iraq significantly more palatable to Putin by offering assurances that Russian economic interests will not be harmed. In particular, he hinted that the United States would look favorably on a post-Hussein regime honoring Iraq's $8 billion in debts to Russia as well as keeping in place lucrative oil contracts and equipment sales that the Persian Gulf nation has awarded Russian companies.

"Those are things we are prepared to talk about, shall we say, in a positive spirit, if it helps us get to the common goal of denying Saddam Hussein the ability to develop weapons of mass destruction," the diplomat said.

Although Russia has been Hussein's main ally in the many UN Security Council debates on Iraq over the last decade, the deepening friendship between Moscow and Washington since the war on terrorism began last fall could herald a shift in Russia's perception of its own interests, the diplomat suggested.

"I don't think it is foreordained that we will have a parting of the ways if pressure fails and military options have to be considered," he said. "I think the Russians, if Saddam blows his last chance, are prepared to say, 'We tried, but there is nothing more we can do.' "

The Russian-Iraqi business relationship is no small matter here. Some experts estimate its long-term value at $40 billion, or about two-thirds of Russia's national budget for this year. Just this week, there were appeals from the Russian oil industry for Putin to "protect" Iraq from the United States.

In Washington, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Iraq would be on the agenda of the Bush-Putin meeting but indicated that the discussion would not necessarily be about military action.

"Since the president hasn't made any decisions on what to do about the status quo in Iraq, just that the status quo is unacceptable, I think he will want to consult with Putin on exactly that point," Rice said.

Bush is likely to lay out the U.S. case for ousting Hussein and argue that Russia would be better off with a successor regime in Iraq that would not threaten other nations in the Persian Gulf region, another U.S. official said.