#4 - JRL 7134
U.S. aide bids to put Russia ties back on track
By Ron Popeski
MOSCOW, April 7 (Reuters) - U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sought to limit the damage that differences over the Iraq war have inflicted on relations with Russia in talks at the Kremlin on Monday.
President George W. Bush's top security aide handed Russian President Vladimir Putin a message emphasising Washington's determination to pursue the strategic relationship struck after the September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, a Kremlin spokeswoman said.
Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, opposed military action in Iraq, arguing for diplomatic measures to ensure Baghdad held no banned weapons of mass destruction.
Relations between the two countries were further strained after a weekend incident in which a Russian diplomatic convoy trying to flee Iraq came under fire.
A senior U.S. diplomat acknowledged the incident had occurred in an area where U.S. forces were active, but he said Rice, in talks with Putin and Moscow's foreign and defence ministers, had made it plain the United States did not wish the Russian diplomats any harm.
"Dr Rice underscored President (George W.) Bush's commitment to a continued partnership with Russia and our determination to keep the relationship on track despite the very serious disagreements we have had on Iraq," the diplomat said in Moscow.
The Kremlin spokeswoman said Russia had "confirmed its well-known position" in opposing military action.
Putin has softened this criticism of the U.S.-led war in the past week and said a U.S. military defeat would not be in Russia's interests.
AMBASSADOR POINTS TO U.S. FORCES
Gunfire raked a convoy of Russian diplomats and journalists on Sunday as it left Baghdad, heading for the Syrian border. An embassy driver was wounded and four diplomats, including the ambassador Vladimir Titorenko, were slightly hurt.
The convoy reached Syria on Monday, though the wounded driver and one other member of the embassy staff remained in an Iraqi hospital.
Titorenko held U.S. forces responsible for the incident and said they had ignored pleas to stop shooting.
"After leaving Baghdad...we faced a number of American armoured vehicles, tanks and guns," Titorenko told reporters.
"There was shooting (at us), and some hand grenades were thrown at other vehicles. We tried to warn them, but they fired at us directly. The shooting continued for about 40 minutes."
U.S. military command earlier denied that the incident had taken place in an area where its troops were present.
The senior U.S. diplomat said: "(Rice) assured Russia that no harm was intended to the convoy as it left Iraq.
"We don't take responsibility...But it does appear the Russian convoy came into an area where we were engaged in a firefight with Iraqi forces. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
U.S. officials, he said, had tried to coordinate the departure of the diplomats, "but we also indicated that we can't give absolute guarantees. It is a war zone."
The diplomat said Rice had stressed the importance of dialogue in rebuilding Iraq after the conflict. She also repeated Washington's stand that the United States and Britain, and not the United Nations, would oversee initial efforts.
"I think the Russians understand very clearly that after the effort and blood spilled in liberating Iraq, it is understandable the coalition will have the leading role in the initial phase," he said.