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Analysis: Russia changes tack on Iraq
By Anthony Louis

MOSCOW, April 5 (UPI) -- Over the two days, as U.S. troops reached the outskirts of Baghdad, the Kremlin has significantly toned down anti-U.S. rhetoric over the war in Iraq, taking a more pragmatic position to long-term ties with the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used every opportunity to stress that disagreements over the Iraq crisis would not be allowed to jeopardize Russia's relationship with the United States.

On Thursday, Putin invited a group of journalists to his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo, near Moscow, where they were informed of the new official line.

"In the political sense, the United States and Russia are the biggest nuclear powers in the world, and a special responsibility rests upon us," Putin said. "In solving these problems, including those of a global character, and crisis situations, we have always cooperated, are cooperating and will cooperate with the United States," the Russian leader said.

Putin stressed that Russia and the United States must maintain and "develop further" a partnership in the war against international terrorism, while continuing to cut nuclear stockpiles and fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

On Wednesday, in the first signal that Moscow is no longer willing to risk further damage to strained ties with Washington over Iraq, Putin remarked that "for political and economic reasons Russia is not interested in seeing the defeat of the United States in Iraq."

Driving the message home, Putin admitted Thursday that the state of the U.S. economy is of vital interest to Russia.

"The economy and currency of the United States has a global significance and their development directly influences the development of the economies of Russia and Europe," he said, noting that millions of Russians held their saving in U.S. dollars, while three quarters of foreign currency reserves at the Russian Central Bank were held in the U.S. currency.

As public opinion in Russia remains strongly opposed to the U.S.-led forces' continuing operations in Iraq, with U.S. popularity falling to near all-time lows, Putin is publicly calling for a more rational approach to Russian-U.S. ties.

"A policy (of cooperation with the United States) is in Russia's interest. It is also in the interest of the United States," he said.

Following publication of a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation which found 58 percent of the 1,500 respondents in favor of Iraq winning the war, while only 3 percent backed the United States, Putin said: "I can understand those people who cannot hold back. I understand and in general agree with their opinions. They are especially understandable after you watch television footage from the front line."

"But at the same time, I think emotions are a bad adviser when it comes to decision-making."

Putin also issued support to Dr. Leonid Roshal -- well known for his work in war zones and in hostage situations -- after the Russian doctor proposed establishing a so-called "green corridor to evacuate Iraqi children from the besieged cities of Baghdad and Basra with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. Children's Fund organization UNICEF.

The U.S. Embassy told Roshal the plan was impractical as an evacuation would endanger the lives of both the children and him.

However, diplomats said Washington had not completely ruled out the plan and that an evacuation of wounded children might take place at some later stage.

The new official line was swiftly put in place as the Russian Prosecutor General's office -- always keenly aware of policy shifts in the Kremlin -- clamped down Friday on a Russian Muslim cleric who had declared a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

State prosecutors were quick to issue a stern warning to Supreme Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, the titular head of Muslims in European Russia, that he would be breaking the law by inciting ethnic and religious dissent.

Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, Russia's senior Muslim cleric, condemned Tadzhuddin's move.

At an anti-war demonstration on Thursday, Tadzhuddin declared that Muslims in Russia should raise money to buy weapons for a jihad against America, and to buy food for the Iraqi people.

Friday's newspapers in Moscow echoed Putin's policy shift on ties with the United States.

"Putin's choice is a pragmatic one," said the leading Izvestia daily.

"At last a choice has been made. Russia will not support Iraq, despite the wishes of the military and political elites," the paper said.

In a further sign of the new mood, police removed an anti-U.S. banner placed near the U.S. Embassy in downtown Moscow.

Just days ago they did not do much to stop nationalists from holding a noisy demonstration outside the embassy.

However, Kremlin officials are quick to point out that, now that Putin has spoken in favor of a stable Russian-U.S. relationship amid a wave of anti-American feeling in society, Moscow will be looking for matching signals from the White House.

As the U.S. House of Representatives sought to exclude Russia from the billion-dollar reconstruction bids in Iraq, Moscow officials say it is up to President George W. Bush to ensure that the United Nations, rather than U.S. Congress, is allowed to make decisions on reconstruction of Iraq. While these officials privately admit that U.S. firms will be getting the lion's share of these contracts, an exclusion of Russian firms from the process would be unacceptable.

More importantly, the Kremlin is also waiting for Washington to follow up on assurances made by U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow that lucrative oilfield development contracts won by Russian firms in Saddam Hussein's Iraq will be respected by any post-war administration in the country under international law.

If these two points are not properly addressed and Russian interests in Iraq suffer, analysts say Putin will have a much harder time explaining his new-found support for stronger ties with Washington.

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