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Putin, Blair Discuss Iraq

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he believed the Security Council could reach common ground on Iraq and did not rule out Moscow's agreeing to a new U.N. resolution on the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq.

"We don't exclude the possibility of reaching some coordinated decision in the shape of a U.N. Security Council resolution," Putin said after meeting with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Russia previously said it could agree to a new resolution, provided it did not automatically entail the use of force if Iraq fails to comply. Russia adamantly opposes any unilateral military action against Baghdad.

After initial hostility to any talk of a new resolution, for which Washington is pressing hard, Russia gradually has softened its position.

Putin also called for the quick return of weapons inspectors, a long-standing Russian position, and stressed that Moscow did not believe a new resolution governing their work was necessary.

"We believe there is no formal, legal necessity to make any decisions by the Security Council," Putin said.

For his part, Blair, who is Washington's strongest ally in its effort to force Iraq to disarm, said the talks held at a Russian presidential residence north of Moscow were friendly.

Iraq was the focus of talks Thursday night and Friday morning between Putin and Blair, who is seeking Russian support for tough new measures against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Earlier Friday, Blair and his wife, Cherie, and Putin and his spouse, Lyudmila, walked around the snow-dusted grounds of Zavidovo, a presidential residence in the countryside about 75 miles north of the capital.

The setting was relaxed. Putin, wearing a sweater and no tie, accompanied Blair, wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt, into a room in a small hunting lodge for the formal talks. A stuffed wild boar greeted them in the entrance hall.

The hunting lodge near the Volga River was once a favorite of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The setting and the smiles underlined the close relationship that Blair has cultivated with Putin. Analysts say reassurances from Blair that Russia's interests in Iraq would be looked after could carry weight because of the trust between the two leaders.

Russia's opposition to military action against Iraq apparently hinges primarily on money. The Kremlin is worried about the $7 billion in Soviet-era debt Baghdad owes and whether Russian oil companies would continue to have access to Iraqi petroleum fields if Saddam's regime falls.

Although Russia continues to oppose military action against Iraq, it has dropped its flat-out rejection of calls for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would lay out strict terms for Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors, as urged by the United States and Britain.

France, which also has a Security Council veto, is pursuing a two-step strategy under which an initial U.N. resolution would call for unfettered access by U.N. weapons inspectors and, if this fails, a second resolution spelling out consequences that do not exclude force.

Analysts also have suggested that Blair could assure Putin that Russia, sensitive about losing international influence to the United States, would be a key player in a post-Saddam Iraq.

In addition, Blair's leverage could be strengthened by Britain's position as an influential country in the NATO alliance, with which Russia is pursuing closer relations through the newly created NATO-Russia Council.