Bush accuses Russian firms of aiding Iraq in war effort
March 25, 2003
WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia is putting American troops at risk by selling antitank guided missiles, jamming devices and night-vision goggles to Iraq, the administration said Monday as President Bush called Vladimir Putin to express U.S. complaints.
Bush raised his objections in a tense telephone call with Putin, who in turn charged that the United States was creating “a humanitarian catastrophe” in Iraq.
It was the latest flare-up in a recently bumpy relationship between Washington and Moscow over issues ranging from missile-defense plans to NATO expansion. Russia sided with France and Germany to block a Bush-backed U.N. resolution sanctioning military conflict to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
After months of monitoring sales to Iraq, the United States received information in the past 48 hours about “the kind of equipment that will put our men and women in harm’s way,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday on Fox News Channel.
Later, he told Britain’s Sky News that he hoped to convey fresh information to Moscow. Asked if he is certain the equipment was in Iraq, Powell replied, “Yes.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there was “ongoing cooperation and support to Iraqi military forces being provided by a Russian company that produces GPS jamming equipment.” The technology blocks satellite signals that guide bombs, missiles and even troop movements.
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Asked if the items were being used against U.S. troops, Fleischer said, “They were not provided for the purpose of sitting on shelves.”
U.S. officials declined to disclose how the Russian technology was transported to Iraq, but they said Iraq has its ways of importing items.
In particular, U.S. officials alleged Russian technicians were in Iraq during the last few weeks to provide technical support for the GPS jammers. The technicians were from a Russian private company, not the government.
However, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told reporters at the Pentagon that the jamming devices had not hurt U.S. troops on the battlefield thus far.
Fleischer said the United States also is concerned that Russian firms have sold night-vision goggles and anti-tank guided missiles to Iraq.
The United States holds Moscow responsible for sales by Russian companies, arguing that the government should do more to monitor the companies and stop exports.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov hotly denied selling military equipment in violation of international sanctions against Iraq. “No fact supporting the American’s anxiety has been found,” he said.
But Powell told Fox News that the Bush administration has given Ivanov and his government “more than enough information” to support its assertion. Administration officials said the accusations were based on confidential U.S. intelligence.
“President Putin assured President Bush that he would look into it,” Fleischer said. “President Bush said he looked forward to hearing the results.”
This is not the first time Moscow has been accused of leaking sensitive technology to U.S. enemies in spite of pledges to tighten its export controls.
Fleischer said concerns have been raised at the “highest levels” of government over the past year, but Monday’s call was the first time to his knowledge that Bush broached the subject directly with Putin.
The personal relationship between Putin and Bush is strong enough to overcome this disagreement, Fleischer said, though he made clear the telephone call was unusually blunt.
“The two of them are comfortable saying directly to each other what they think,” the spokesman said.
In Moscow, Putin called on Iraq to treat war prisoners humanely and warned Bush of the danger of a humanitarian disaster in the region.
“The number of victims on both sides is growing, and this gives rise to regret,” Putin told top Cabinet members.
Later, in his telephone call with Bush, the Russian leader called attention to “the humanitarian consequences of military operations,” the presidential press service said.
Bush, who had no public appearances Monday, told reporters a day earlier that “massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving within the next 36 hours.”
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is visiting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday to discuss humanitarian issues, a senior administration official said.