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Downplaying Differences

Every time President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet, the difficult disagreements in the Washington-Moscow relationship - among the most delicate concerning Iraq, Iran and Chechnya - are pushed into the background.

No major public differences were expected Saturday when the two leaders faced reporters after two days of talks in the seclusion of the Camp David, Maryland, presidential retreat.

Mr. Bush greeted Putin with a hug, a backslap, a handshake and smiles all around on a sunny fall afternoon Friday. "Glad you're here," he said, and then ferried the Russian president by golf cart into the wooded, rustic comfort of the mountain compound.

After meetings, dinner and more meetings the two planned to appear together before reporters at midday Saturday to close out their summit.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller points out that, "It is the nature of their relationship that the two can agree to disagree without being disagreeable." And Knoller notes that neither the leaders of France or germany have been invited to Camp David or the Bush ranch in Texas.

Topping their agenda, Bush aides said, were joint efforts to fight terrorism worldwide, the difficult search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the reconstruction of Iraq and prevention of the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Nearly all those topics contain pitfalls.

Putin staunchly opposed the U.S. war in Iraq. He has also expressed distress over the continuing conflict and demanded a greater United Nations role in the Iraq reconstruction Bush wants before helping to share the burden there, as Mr. Bush wants.

Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran, in which it has lucrative contracts to help to build an $800 million power plant in southern Iran, is also a sore point. U.S. officials claim Russian technology is helping Tehran develop nuclear weapons and contribute to the proliferation of unconventional weapons. Russia, and Iran, insist the aid is going only for electricity production, and Putin has shown no willingness to give up the business.

With Putin seeing the Chechnya war as part of his own battle against terror, U.S. opposition to Moscow's ongoing military campaign against separatists there was softened after Putin offered support for the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign.

But last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer warned the topic was among the most troubling issues facing the Camp David talks, comments that infuriated the Russians.

For his part, Putin has accused the United States of holding secret talks with rebel representative Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, former president of Chechnya, who lives in Qatar.

But Mr. Bush and Putin have developed warm personal ties.

And the importance of the post-Sept. 11 relationship with Russia continues to dominate, leading to a greater focus on common ground than on the divides. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan alluded to that calculation on Friday.

"There is a new strategic relationship with Russia that the two presidents have worked together to develop," McClellan said. "We are partnering in a number of areas to address our shared challenges."

For instance, McClellan wouldn't say whether Mr. Bush would bring up the troublesome topic of Putin's crackdown on independent media. He also wouldn't predict whether Mr. Bush would ask for specific troop or financial commitments in Iraq.

"Let's let the meeting take place," he said in both cases.

Russia's oil resources are an area of potential cooperation. U.S. officials see rising Russian oil exports as an alternative to volatile Middle Eastern supplies.

Another area where the U.S. administration has tried to satisfy Moscow are the so-called Jackson-Vanick restrictions, imposed in 1974 to expedite the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel. Mr. Bush has asked Congress to lift them as vestiges of the Cold War, though lawmakers have not acted because of disputes over the Iraq war and U.S. poultry exports.

In a visit Friday to the New York Stock Exchange, Putin criticized the restrictions. "It is obvious that this causes damage to our relationship," he said.

But the thorny disputes remain, even if played down in public.

Administration officials said Mr. Bush would renew U.S. objections to Russia's nuclear assistance to Iran.

Putin told American reporters in Moscow last weekend that Russia planned to go ahead and sign contracts for the Bushehr nuclear plant in southern Iran. "If Iran is not striving to develop nuclear weapons, it has nothing to hide. I see no grounds for refusing to sign these (documents)," he said.

On Iraq, Putin has ruled out sending Russian troops as peacekeepers, but may offer limited helps as advisers, perhaps as police trainers, analysts suggested.