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Putin Questions U.S. Coalition Efforts in Terror War

Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush on Friday the United States should not wage war alone against Iraq, and questioned whether White House allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are doing enough to fight terrorism.

"Where has Osama bin Laden taken refuge?" the Russian said in a joint news conference with Bush at an 18th-century czarist castle.

The sharply worded question, though not a direct criticism of Bush, underscored the frustration felt by U.S. officials since the Al Qaeda leader resurfaced after months of silence in an audiotape praising recent terrorist attacks.

In Washington, Democratic leaders have accused Bush of focusing on Iraq at the expense of the broader war on terrorism. Some have suggested the White House fueled a conflict with Iraq to take command of the agenda for midterm elections, which resulted in big GOP gains.

Meeting beneath the golden domes of Catherine Palace, Bush cited the recent arrest of Al Qaeda's Persian Gulf operations chief, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, as evidence of the U.S.-led coalition's success.

"People who love freedom are one person safer as a result of us finding this guy," the president said.

But Putin, while issuing a statement in support of Bush's Iraq policy, followed quickly with severe doubts about the war on terrorism.

"We should not forget about those who finance terrorism," Putin said, noting that 15 of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudi citizens. "We should not forget about that."

Putin also cited reports that bin Laden is hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, wondering aloud whether Pakistan President Musharraf Pervez has done enough to stabilize the area.

"What can happen with armies, arms, weapons that exist in Pakistan, including weapons of mass destruction?" he said.

Heavy in symbolism, the three-hour stop in Russia was Bush's way of thanking Putin for supporting a U.N. resolution requiring Iraq to disarm. He came here from the Czech Republic, where 19 NATO allies voted to expand the Western alliance into the former Soviet bloc.

Early this month, as Bush lobbied Putin over the phone for support on Iraq, the Russian told Bush he should come to Russia after the NATO summit. Unspoken by Putin -- but clear to Bush -- was the message that Russians need reassurance that an expanded NATO won't harm their nation.

"Russia's a friend, not an enemy," Bush said at the news conference.

Putin said he did not think the alliance's expansion was necessary, but pledged to maintain warm relations with NATO allies, including the new invitees that were in the Soviet Union's sphere less than a decade ago.

The two leaders released a statement demanding that Iraq comply with the U.N. resolution or face "severe consequences."

But Putin urged Bush not to go to war without the consent of the United Nations, a pledge the president has been unwilling to make.

"Diplomats have carried out very difficult and very complex work, and we do believe that we have to stay within the framework of the work being carried out by the United Nations," Putin said.

Catherine Palace was built by Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, as a gift for her husband in 1718. Its facade, the longest in Europe, stretches more than 1,000 feet in a glorious collection of columns, windows and statues. Inside, the 20,000-piece art collection includes paintings by European masters from the 17th to 19th centuries and Chippendale furniture.

Bush's courtship of Putin recalls the campaign waged by Bush's father to win the support of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for U.N. resolutions leading to the Persian Gulf War. The elder Bush offered political and economic support to the crumbling Soviet empire in return for Gorbachev's acquiescence on Iraq.

With war on the horizon once again, Russia wants assurances that military action in Iraq won't jeopardize its economic interests with Baghdad or drop oil prices so low that it hurts Moscow's already ailing economy.

Though there was little talk about the issue Friday, Bush has assured Putin he will do what it can on both counts, administration officials said. They said Moscow may be overestimating America's influence in a postwar Iraq.

Putin fears that lifting the U.N. trade sanctions on Iraq after a war could trigger an influx of Western oil interests that would collapse oil prices. The administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russia has been told the United States cannot control oil markets, but Bush has long supported efforts to keep oil prices stable.

Russia also wants to protect Russian oil contracts in Iraq, and hopes to recover more than $8 billion in debts owed by Iraq.

Bush has assured Putin that Russia will be a major player in building a postwar Iraq, officials said, meaning Moscow would be free to pursue its debts while oil industry competes on an even playing field in Iraq with Western interests.

On another sticky issue, Bush renewed his hope that Putin can find a political way to resolve the fighting in Chechnya, which Russia considers a breakaway province, U.S. officials said. Bush has acknowledged terrorist elements in the Chechnya.