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#3 - JRL 7133
Bush aide seeks to smooth ties with Russia on Iraq
By Richard Balmforth

MOSCOW, April 7 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush's top national security aide met Russian officials on Monday to try to repair ties with Moscow badly shaken by the war on Iraq.

With Moscow smarting over an armed attack on a convoy of Russian diplomats in Iraq -- so far unexplained -- U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice held talks with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and other senior officials.

"We (Russia and the United States) have been through some difficult times and differences over Iraq have strained the relationship and we look forward to exchanging views on how to move forward," a U.S. embassy spokesman said.

Russia sought to dissuade the United States and Britain from going to war to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein arguing for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over alleged Iraqi stockpiles of banned weapons.

President Vladimir Putin, with an eye to long-term ties with Washington and Russia's future economic interests in Iraq, has since softened this criticism and says a U.S. military defeat would not be in Russia's interests.

But Moscow officially admonished Washington over U.S. air attacks on Baghdad last week which it said struck uncomfortably close to the Russian embassy there.

Though it was not clear which side was responsible for the attack on a Russian diplomatic convoy on Sunday in which one diplomat was badly wounded, the incident seemed likely to inject some emotion into Rice's meetings with senior Russian officials.

Gunfire raked the convoy of Russian diplomats and journalists as it left Baghdad.

The U.S. army said it had no troops in the Baghdad suburb where the incident took place, but a Russian television correspondent in the convoy said it had been caught in crossfire between U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told Rossiya TV news channel that five diplomats from the 25-strong convoy were injured. Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko was slightly hurt.

Yakovenko said the convoy left for Syria on Monday with nine Russian diplomats, including Titorenko.

One diplomat, who had been operated on, stayed behind in hospital in the Iraqi town of Al-Fallujah, 50 km (30 miles) from Baghdad, together with another member of the embassy's staff, he said.

A ministry statement on Sunday said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had called Ivanov to express his "deep regret" at the incident. From the Russian foreign ministry version of the telephone call, this appeared to stop short of an admission of any U.S. responsibility.

Apart from Foreign Minister Ivanov, Rice was scheduled to meet Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Rushailo who is secretary to Putin's advisory security council, and the head of Putin's administration.

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