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Russian Defense Chief Scolds U.S. for Harsh Stance on Iraq

By Bradley Graham
and David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev forcefully lectured Defense Secretary William S. Cohen Thursday about America's "tough and uncompromising" stand on Iraq, warning against hasty judgments and short-lived military victories and expressing "deep concern" about future U.S.-Russian relations if the United States takes military action against Iraq.

With reporters looking on at the start of a meeting between the two defense chiefs, Cohen calmly countered that President Clinton had exercised "great caution" toward Iraq. He argued that while there were risks associated with military action, the costs of allowing Iraq to continue to flout United Nations resolutions were more significant.

The spirited exchange inside Russia's Ministry of Defense dramatized the tensions in U.S.-Russian relations over Iraq.

Russia also issued a carefully-worded denial Thursday in response to a report in The Washington Post that U.N. inspectors in Iraq last fall uncovered evidence of a 1995 agreement by the Russian government to sell Iraq sophisticated fermentation equipment that could be used to develop biological weapons. The Post report quoted sources who said the sale could have violated a U.N.-authorized embargo on sales to Iraq of such sensitive materials.

Although Cohen said afterward he was not surprised by Sergeyev's highly critical remarks, a senior Cohen aide acknowledged that the Russian's action marked a sharp departure from usual diplomatic courtesies.

Russia has made no secret of its opposition to U.S. contingency plans to launch air strikes unless Iraq complies with U.N. resolutions and allows inspectors unrestricted access to suspected weapons sites. Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned last week that the United States would be risking a "world war" if it took military action and has sent a high-ranking envoy to Baghdad in an attempt to negotiate a compromise.

But Thursday marked the first time the Russians had made such blunt remarks in a public, face-to-face encounter with a U.S. Cabinet member.

Cohen and Sergeyev proclaimed agreement on the need for Iraq to abide by U.N. resolutions, saying their differences were over the means to that end.

Sergeyev said he had raised several compromise proposals on Iraq with Cohen, and the Pentagon leader left the door open for Washington to review them.

In response to The Post's report Thursday on evidence uncovered by the U.N. of an agreement by Russia to sell Iraq equipment that could be used to produce biological weapons, Gennady Tarasov, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters, "We strongly condemn such rude attempts which distort the real state of affairs. Russia has never concluded any deals with Iraq in violation of the existing regime of sanctions, let alone supplied any materials or equipment which may be used for prohibited purposes, in biological or any other fields."

The statement did not deny specifically that negotiations were carried out for such a sale. In fact, in the past, gyroscopes for ballistic missile guidance systems had been sent to Iraq from Russia in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Tarasov confirmed that Moscow had received a query about the latest issue from the United Nations on Feb. 8.

Tarasov also responded to The Post's report that Russians have been spying on the U.N. commission (UNSCOM) and its personnel in New York and overseas. Tarasov said, "We resolutely reject this misreporting." He called on the U.N. special commission to issue a denial of the report, which he said included confidential information.

Cohen said he raised The Post's report briefly with Sergeyev, who disputed it in the meeting and again at a news conference afterward. A senior aide to Cohen said the secretary also had been unaware of the U.N. inspectors' discovery.

Participants in the meeting said the subject of Iraq drew only a bit more discussion after the opening exchange and after reporters were ushered out of the room. Most of the session dealt with other security concerns between the United States and Russia, including NATO expansion plans and the Russian parliament's delay in ratifying the second strategic arms reduction treaty (the Senate ratified it two years ago) - issues that Sergeyev had suggested would be at risk if the United States attacked Iraq.

"I would like to relate to you our deep concern over the possible prospects of Russian-U.S. relations in the military field, especially if military actions are taken," said the minister.