National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that Russia is being asked to help promote change in Iran, Iraq and North Korea, three countries President Bush has denounced as an "axis of evil." 

The focus is on stopping the spread of weapons technology, Rice told a conservative group as Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on preparations for summit talks in May in Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Bush administration officials, like their predecessors, are concerned that Russian firms are assisting Iran's weapons programs with advanced technology. 

Without renewing the criticism directly, Rice said Iran's "aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction belie any good intentions that it displayed" in supporting the U.S. campaign against the Taliban militia and the al-Qaida terror network in Afghanistan. 

"We will use our new and budding relationship with Russia to redouble our efforts to prevent the leakage of dangerous materials and technologies," Bush's assistant for national security said. 

Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, calling them an "axis of evil." The President did not say what he intended to do to deal with them. 

Rice, offering a preliminary account, stressed the U.S. campaign to try to stop the spread of technology for long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. 

She said Iraq "remains a regime determined to acquire those terrible weapons." And, in her speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, she lashed out at North Korea as "the world's No. 1 merchant for ballistic missiles." 

Bush will hold his next round of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 23 in Moscow and the next two days in St. Petersburg, Russia, officials said. 

At the Russian Embassy, Powell said he had discussed with the Russian prime minister what the two sides hope to achieve at the summit. 

Smiling, Kasyanov said "relations are good" and that the two countries would cooperate in several areas. 

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell and Kasyanov discussed mostly Putin's program for economic reform. Boucher said the United States was interested especially in measures to curb corruption and to bolster the rule of law in business life in Russia. 

There is at least one potential trouble spot. Russia is insisting on a formal accord to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals and the Bush administration prefers an informal approach. 

Bush and Putin pledged deep cuts in nuclear arsenals in their talks in Washington and Crawford, Texas, in November. They disagreed on U.S. aspirations for a missile defense system, and Bush subsequently announced the United States would withdraw from a treaty that bans the creation of a national anti-missile shield. 

Russia still believes it was a mistake to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but is unable to stop Bush. 

Administration officials consider arms control negotiations as much a relic of the past as the ban on national missile defenses. 

But they have said they are inclined to adapt some provisions of old treaties to provide for verifying that cuts are being carried out. They also have not ruled out codifying the mutual pledges. 

Boucher said, "It will be worked out." 

The two sides swapped drafts of proposed agreements Wednesday that are designed to set relations on a new and friendlier course. 

 

 

In a move toward cooperation in the legal field, Powell and Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov ratified an agreement reached two years ago for the two nations to help each other in criminal investigations.

 

The Russian Embassy said in a statement that the agreement "makes it possible to solve problems in such fields as organized crime and drug traffic" and is also "a unique instrument to combat international terrorism."

The U.S. and Russian delegations are due to meet again in Moscow on Feb. 19.