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Russian pursuit of 'evil' nations strains Bush-Putin relationship


MOSCOW - A flurry of Russian overtures to Iraq, Iran and North Korea - nations the United States calls an "axis of evil" - is exposing strains in the newly forged relationship between Presidents Bush and Vladimir V. Putin, American and Russian officials say.

In recent weeks, Putin's government has conspicuously pursued a range of economic and diplomatic accords with all three countries - from proposals to drill for oil in Iraq and build nuclear reactors in Iran to a warm meeting between Putin and North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, in Vladivostok on Aug. 23.

Tomorrow, the Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri Ahmad al-Hadithi, is scheduled to arrive in Moscow for two days of meetings with his Russian counterpart, Igor S. Ivanov, and other senior officials. Russian officials said the visit could end with the signing of a 10-year, $40 billion plan to expand economic investment between the two countries.

Although the plan has been in the works for two years, Iraqi officials seem eager to close the deal - if only to bolster international opposition to the Bush administration's efforts to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The overtures have surprised and angered senior Bush administration officials, who seem frustrated that warmer relations with Putin's Russia have not been translated into support for the administration's goals, especially regarding Iraq and Iran.

In a rebuke more reminiscent of the Cold War than of the new partnership Bush and Putin have pledged, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld recently warned that Russia's relations with countries the United States considers enemies threatened to erode its diplomatic and economic standing.

"To the extent that Russia decides that it wants to parade its relationship with countries like Iraq and Libya and Syria and Cuba and North Korea, it sends a signal out across the globe that that is what Russia thinks is a good thing to do, to deal with the terrorist states," Rumsfeld said.

Russian officials have defended the overtures, saying that Putin's government is simply pursuing its diplomatic and economic interests. Russia shares a border with North Korea and has longstanding trade ties with it, as well as with Iraq and Iran.

Officials from both countries play down the possibility of a breach in the new partnership. Despite criticisms such as Rumsfeld's, American officials said Putin remains a staunch ally in the campaign against international terrorism.

The administration's looming showdown over Iraq could severely test that.

"What's more important is what the Russians' attitude is toward regime change and taking military action in Iraq," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former Clinton administration nonproliferation official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Is it going to be a problem, or will they stand on the sidelines?"

Senior politicians and diplomats said in interviews last week that Russian objectives in Iraq, Iran and North Korea did not necessarily contradict American ones, though they acknowledged that sharp differences remain over many issues and tactics.

In the case of North Korea, for example, Ivanov helped broker the unusual meeting in Brunei on July 31 between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the North Korean foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, according to a senior Russian aide. That was the highest-level American contact with North Korea since Bush took office 20 months ago.

After Putin's meeting with Kim, the two Koreas also resumed negotiations on a rail link that would connect the peninsula with Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad, opening a trade route across the continent to European markets that could bring millions of dollars in duties and transit fees for Russia's economy.

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