MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that the United States had no basis to extend the war against terrorism to Iraq, but he conceded that Saddam Hussein's nation did pose problems to the international community.
Putin's remarks came after President Bush on Wednesday announced he had ordered a review of options to oust Saddam. Russian officials have warned that targeting Iraq could break apart the coalition formed after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
"We know which nations' representatives and citizens were fighting alongside the Taliban and where their activities were financed from. Iraq is not on this list," Putin told a joint news conference in the Kremlin with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
"But that does not mean that the international community does not have any problems concerning Iraq. We are actively discussing these issues, together with our partners in the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council, and searching for ways to solve these problems."
Earlier Thursday, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov joined the chorus of Russian officials warning the United States against attacking Iraq.
Referring to Bush's identification of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech, the foreign minister said that "labeling various states is an approach that is hardly in compliance with international efforts to combat terrorism," the Interfax news agency reported.
"The interests of strengthening the international anti-terrorist coalition can in no way be answered by unilateral actions, no matter which side makes them."
Vladimir Lukin, an influential lawmaker and former Russian ambassador to the United States, told the Interfax news agency that "the United States has to bear in mind the practically unanimous negative reaction of the international community, including close allies of the United States and Russia, to the possible use of force against Iraq."
Russia has close ties with Iraq, and Moscow has strongly pushed for lifting the U.N. sanctions that were imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 in hopes that Iraq could start paying off its $7 billion Soviet-era debt to Moscow and resume economic cooperation.
But Moscow has also begun to cooperate more with nations that are pressing Iraq to accept U.N. weapons inspectors as a condition for lifting sanctions — a shift underlined by Putin's hint Thursday that Iraq presents a security problem.
"All measures must be taken so that international observers return to Iraq so they can carry out international monitoring," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told a news briefing. However, he insisted that the sanctions should be removed.
The U.N. inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998 ahead of U.S. and British airstrikes. Iraq has barred them from returning, but claims it has got rid of its weapons of mass destruction.
Yakovenko said Iraq would be among the issues discussed Friday when Ivanov travels to Paris to meet with French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine.