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Russian Leader: Iraqi Army Still Potent
April 1, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that a U.S. victory in Iraq was ``far from certain'' as the Iraqi army still retains its potential, and warned that the campaign was prompting Russia to strengthen its own military, according to an interview published Tuesday.

Ivanov was quoted as telling the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that the Russian military was closely following the war in Iraq, making conclusions related to the development of prospective weapons. He added that the Iraqis were still capable of mounting strong opposition.

If U.S. troops ``launch carpet bombings, Iraq won't hold out for long, but they are yet to dare doing that because the political damage would be huge,'' Ivanov said. ``But if they try to fight with minimal losses, accurately as they are doing it now, avoiding big clashes, the outcome is far from certain. Iraq has quite a serious army, and it hasn't yet started to fight.''

Ivanov said that Moscow opposed the war not because of its economic interests in Iraq, but out of concern for global security.

``Saddam is neither friend, nor brother to us, and he will never pay off debts to us,'' Ivanov said, referring to Iraq's US$7-8 billion Soviet-era debt to Russia. ``It's the question of precedent: today the United States doesn't like Iraq, tomorrow Syria, then Iran, North Korea and then what: everyone else?''

Ivanov said that the war made it necessary to strengthen the Russian military.

``We are drawing some military-political conclusions, because this conflict makes us remember the words of (Russian Czar) Alexander III who said that Russia has only two reliable allies - the army and the navy,'' Ivanov said. ``While the international security system is coming apart at the seams, they must provide a reliable defense.''

Amid the growing strain in U.S.-Russian relations over Iraq, the U.S. administration last week accused Russian companies of shipping military equipment to Iraq. Moscow has angrily dismissed the allegations, and warned Washington against waging what it dubbed an ``information war.''

In other recent signs of friction, the lower house of the Russian parliament delayed the ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty that Bush and Putin signed last May, citing negative feelings over Iraq. And the Russian military scrambled its fighters to shadow the flights of U.S. spy planes over the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia bordering Russia to the south.

Ivanov told the Komsomolskaya Pravda that the U.S. U-2 spy planes have recently made four flights over Georgia, on three occasions coming as close as 12-16 miles to the Russian border.

Ivanov said Moscow was dissatisfied with the U.S. claim that the flights were necessary to monitor terrorist groups in Georgia because the planes were flying to high to spot the terrorists.

``We can't accept the explanation about combating terrorism and we have asked the American side to explain to us what was the purpose of such flights,'' Ivanov said.

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