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Friction For Friends Bush & Putin

Hoping to bridge their differences over the invasion of Iraq and the United States plan for rebuilding it, President Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin were meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat Friday and Saturday.

Putin opposed the war in Iraq and joined French and German efforts to prevent passage of a U.N. resolution that Mr. Bush sought authorizing the use of force. Last weekend, Putin said Russia's position hadn't changed, and that "the situation that is developing in Iraq is the best confirmation that Russia was right."

Putin also told American reporters that Russia was ready to put aside differences over the war to work with the United States on rebuilding Iraq, even holding out the possibility of eventually sending troops.

But he insisted that the United Nations must have a real role in Iraq, a position he forcefully reiterated Thursday in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

He implicitly criticized the United States for launching a war on Iraq without U.N. approval, and said, "Only direct participation by the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide on their future."

"And only with the active — and I want to stress this — practical assistance by the United Nations in its economic and civil transformation, only thus will Iraq assume a new, worthy place in the world community," the Russian leader added.

The White House says it envisions a "vital" role for the United Nations going forward, but a proposed U.S. resolution has bogged down over objections that the United States was not willing to yield sufficient authority to the United Nations. Mr. Bush insists on a dominant U.S. role in overseeing the transition to Iraqi sovereignty.

Mr. Bush and Putin say they maintain warm personal ties, and there are signs that the U.S.-Russian relationship is bound to grow deeper.

For instance, the United States seeks new sources of petroleum, and Russia needs new sources of investment to develop and move its rich reserves.

But there are many points of friction.

The Bush administration says Russian technology to Iran is helping Tehran develop a nuclear weapons program. Russia has denied that. And after a decade of U.S. complaints about an $800 million deal to build a reactor for a nuclear power plant in Iran, Russia says it still plans to push ahead with the project.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer warned last week that Kremlin policy in Chechnya may be "among the most troubling issues" at the Camp David summit.

In his meeting with the American reporters, Putin accused the United States of secret talks with rebel representative Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who lives in Qatar.

One veteran observer of U.S.-Russia relations said the meetings Friday and Saturday could prove a turning point.

A Bush-Putin meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, four months ago "proved that the U.S.-Russia clash over Iraq could be overcome and would not cause a fundamental break between the countries," said Celeste Wallander, director of the Russia/Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"It did not, however, answer what the preserved relationship could achieve and what it would tackle," Wallander said. "This week's meeting between the two presidents in Camp David will be the first indication of what the leaderships expect to achieve and take on."