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Russian, British Leaders to Meet on Iraq
June 24, 2003

LONDON (AP) - President Vladimir Putin flew to London Tuesday to be feted as the guest of Queen Elizabeth II in the first state visit by a Russian leader to Britain since Czar Alexander II in 1874.

The visit was designed to cement growing economic and political ties between the nations, and warm relations chilled by the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Britain joined and Russia opposed.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on British television, Putin said relations between the two countries had matured since the fall of the Soviet Union.

``They are no longer about ideology. We have become true partners,'' Putin told the British Broadcasting Corp.'s ``Breakfast With Frost'' program.

During the four-day visit, Putin will meet Prime Minister Tony Blair and opposition political leaders. Putin also will attend an energy conference to discuss plans for a pipeline to bring gas from Siberia to western Europe, and lay a wreath at a memorial to Russia's war dead.

Britain exported more than $1.65 billion worth of goods to Russia last year, and Britain is the country's largest foreign investor. British energy giants Shell and BP both have announced big projects in Russia.

But much of the trip's value is symbolic. The Russian leader and his wife Lyudmila will be treated to all the pomp the British state can muster: an airport greeting by Prince Charles, a state carriage procession to Buckingham Palace, and a state banquet with the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, Tuesday evening.

The last time a Russian leader made such a visit was in 1874 when Alexander II stayed with Queen Victoria. Then, the czar's daughter was marrying Victoria's son.

After the Bolsheviks killed Czar Nicholas II and his family - relatives of Britain's royal clan - in 1918, relations between the two states grew strained.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Anglo-Russian relationship has flourished. The queen paid a state visit to Russia in 1994, and Britain was the destination of Putin's first trip to the West after being elected president in 2000.

He and Blair have cultivated a close relationship, and the two leaders will likely downplay, at least in public, differences over issues such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Russia opposed the Iraq war, but now wants to ensure it gets a share of the postwar rebuilding contracts. On Sunday, Putin warned Britain and the United States not to ``squeeze out'' Russian firms in the reconstruction effort, and said he expected oil contracts signed between Russian companies and the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein to be honored.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said Monday the two leaders would hold wide-ranging talks on Iraq, including ``principles of the postwar restoration ... (and) the role of the United Nations in that process, trade and economic problems, as well as Iraqi debts,'' the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

He said the two leaders' views of how to handle Iraq ``have been coming closer of late.''

The Iranian nuclear program will also be high on the agenda, Prikhodko said. Britain fears Iran may be using its nuclear power program, which Russia helped build, as a cover to develop an atomic bomb. Russia insists Iran has no nuclear weapons program.

Blair is also under pressure from lawmakers and rights groups to condemn human rights abuses in Chechnya, the breakaway republic where Moscow is waging a long-running war. But he does not want to let the criticism harm the prospect of better relations.

Putin also will travel to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, attend the Lord Mayor's Banquet in London and visit tourist attractions including St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

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