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US sees progress in strategic talks with Russia
By Jonathan Wright

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - The United States said on Thursday it was making progress in talks with Russia on a strategic deal expected to include big cuts in nuclear arsenals and some leeway for Washington to test missile defenses.

But talks could continue for months, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told a briefing. That would stretch the talks beyond the summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin from Nov. 13 to 15,

She was speaking as Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov wound up more than three and a half hours of talks at the State Department on preparations for the summit, where nuclear forces and missile defenses are expected to be the top priority.

She said: "We believe that we are understanding each other better, that we're making progress, but I would caution against expecting any particular deal at any particular time.

"We are understanding better ... what our own constraints and demands are, but I would not jump to any conclusions about precisely how this is all going to come out or when there is going to be an agreement. I think that would be a mistake."

The United States wants to test and develop a missile defense system that would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missle (ABM) treaty in its present form. Russia has resisted changes but has recently shown some signs of flexibility.

Both countries are willing to make sharp reductions in the number of nuclear warheads they possess but Rice said reductions should stem from an internal review of U.S. defense needs, not from negotiations with the Russians.

The Washington Post said on Thursday that the summit would probably lead to a deal allowing extensive testing to develop a missile defense system while also setting a target of cutting strategic nuclear warhead levels by about two-thirds.

It said the agreement would not scrap the ABM treaty, which U.S. officials say remains the ultimate goal of negotiations with Russia, but would allow Washington to start the testing and development program it hopes to begin early next year.

They would set goals for slowly reducing the number of warheads to between 1,750 and 2,250 each, it added.


But Rice repeatedly said it would be premature to expect an agreement at any particular time.

She added: "We've said that we're going to be transparent in our testing program. We've said that the Russians should know precisely what we're doing.... We'll see how the discussions go over the next several months."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who will leave for Moscow on Friday for more talks on the subject, said his visit meant there was no done deal between Moscow and Washington.

"If those things were all tied up with a ribbon I doubt that I'd be going," he told a news conference.

"I suspect that the ribbon will not be placed around the thing until President Bush and President Putin meet and sort through the several important issues. The rest of us, we clear out underbrush, that's what we do," he added.

The summit, first in Washington and then at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, could be the last chance for Russia and the United States to reach a deal before the United States starts carrying out tests that run up against the ABM treaty.

Bush is committed to developing a missile defense system, which is strongly supported in his Republican Party.

Controversy over the treaty dogged bilateral relations for the first eight months of Bush's presidency but the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11 have led to a new spirit of cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Relations improved dramatically in September when Moscow said it would not object if Central Asian republics allowed U.S. forces to use their bases for operations in Afghanistan.

Western officials say Moscow has also toned down its opposition to NATO expansion into Eastern Europe.

In exchange, the United States and Europe have been more sympathetic to Russia's campaign in Chechnya, where Muslim separatists are seeking independence from Moscow. Russia says it is fighting "terrorists" in the breakaway republic.

Rumsfeld announced a week ago that Washington had postponed certain missile defense-related testing to avoid violating the treaty while it tries to strike a deal with Russia.

Defense officials later said the two tests had already been delayed for technical reasons unrelated to the ABM treaty

Ivanov, speaking outside the State Department, said U.S. and Russian experts would work over the next two weeks to prepare documents for the summit. He called his talks with Powell substantive and productive.

Powell said he would visit Moscow in December.

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