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U.S., Russia Meet To Discuss Convoy, Strained Relationship

By Robyn Dixon
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met President Vladimir V. Putin and other officials Monday, a day after a Russian diplomatic convoy came under fire in the Iraq war strongly opposed by Russian leaders.

Rice listened to concerns over the incident, which occurred Sunday as Russian diplomats tried to flee Baghdad.

“We assured the Russians that no harm was intended,” a senior U.S. diplomat said, adding that the United States did not accept responsibility and that the convoy was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Five people were injured.

Rice’s main purpose in Moscow, the U.S. diplomat said, was to convey the United States’ commitment to its relationship with Russia, despite the current difficulties. But she had another, less palatable message: that Russia will not be involved in Iraq in the immediate postwar period.

Russia, along with European powers including Britain and France, wants the United Nations to take a leading role in rebuilding Iraq. But the Bush administration has made it clear that coalition partners fighting the war will take the lead role.

“I think Russia understands very clearly that after the effort and the blood spilled in liberating Iraq, it’s understandable that the coalition will have the leading role in the initial phase. I think we need to discuss how we will proceed from there,” the U.S. diplomat said.

The attack on the convoy is just the latest incident to strain Russia-U.S. relations. Russia has demanded an investigation, but has not formally blamed the United States. But Russian officials told Rice that the bullet extracted from one wounded Russian diplomat was American.

Russia’s ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, who was in the convoy, said Monday that the cars stopped 40 yards from U.S. military vehicles, which opened fire. Implying the shooting was deliberate, he said an American bullet was found in a car seat.

Speaking on Channel One state television, Titorenko, who was slightly hurt, held up a bullet dislodged from his car, saying, “This bullet was meant for the ambassador. If it hadn’t been for this thing,” he said, indicating a barrier inside the car, “the bullet would have hit me right in the head.”

Despite initial denials from U.S. Central Command in Qatar that U.S. forces were in the area where the Russian convoy was attacked, a senior U.S. diplomat said Monday it appeared the convoy was in an area “where we were engaged in fighting with Iraqi forces.”

The diplomat said the presence of American bullets did not prove who was firing the weapons and suggested the incident might have been an Iraqi provocation.

Titorenko said the convoy was under fire for 30 to 40 minutes despite efforts by one Russian diplomat to stop the firing.