MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that sanctions against Iraq should not be lifted until the threat of weapons of mass destruction is clearly eliminated.
After nearly two hours of talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Putin said the U.S.-led coalition based its war in Iraq on the belief that Baghdad had such weapons and said the issue must be clarified before sanctions can end.
The United States wants to quickly lift the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Putin noted that Saddam Hussein's fate is unknown. "Where is Saddam? Where are these arsenals, if they were really there, and what is happening with them?" Putin asked. "Maybe Saddam is sitting somewhere in a secret bunker and plans to blow all this stuff up soon at the last second, threatening hundreds of human lives."
"We don't know anything. These questions must be answered," the Russian president said.
Putin set the stage for a confrontation with Washington, emphasizing the need for a key United Nations role in postwar Iraq. "After the end of the war, the central role of the United Nations must be not only restored but strengthened," he said.
Blair, a key U.S. ally in the war, said the United Nations would have a "vital role" in reconstructing Iraq, but added that there are "many details to be worked as to exactly what that role contains."
He laid out a passionate case for Russian cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in postwar Iraq, saying agreement over the U.N. role is a test of the most powerful nations' ability to overcome disagreement about the war and cooperate against global threats.
Blair also said the coalition must be prepared to accept a significant U.N. role while Security Council members who opposed the war must understand the coalition will not easily surrender control of rebuilding a country where its soldiers shed blood.
Putin agreed the world powers must cooperate against common threats, but reiterated Russia's concern about American dominance.
"If this whole community is called upon to serve the interests of just one member of the world community, that is hardly acceptable," Putin said.
He also warned that a postwar system created without strong input from the United Nations "is hardly likely to be long-lasting, effective or fair."
Also Tuesday, Putin said Russia is willing to consider restructuring debts contracted by Saddam's regime, while Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin stressed that Russia opposed a complete write-off.
Russian officials initially bristled at suggestions by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that Russia should write off the Iraqi debt to help with reconstruction. However, Putin said Moscow was willing to consider the proposal.
Putin said debt negotiations would have to be handled through the Paris Club, an informal group of creditor nations that seeks ways for debtor nations to make good on their payments.
The 19 members of the Paris Club are owed an estimated $26 billion by Iraq. That amount includes only principal, not interest that has gone unpaid on most of the debt since the 1970s. Iraq owes more than $8 billion to Russia.