WASHINGTON - On the telephone and in person, President Bush prodded Russia's top officials yesterday to support a stringent United Nations resolution against Iraq, but apparently found little success in softening their resistance.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov did emphasize that Moscow agrees Baghdad must comply with U.N. Security Council demands that international inspectors be permitted a free rein to search for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
But it appeared Bush made no headway in gaining support for a tough new resolution that would authorize the use of force if Iraq does not quickly accede to thorough searches. Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, can veto any council resolution.
Papering over the differences between Washington and Moscow, Ivanov told reporters outside the White House that "Russia and the United States firmly believe that the international U.N. inspectors must return to Iraq."
At a news conference later in the day, he suggested that Russia sees no need for a new U.N. resolution until renewed inspection efforts are given a chance.
The United States and Russia have a "common interest in reliable and comprehensive information on all problems associated with the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Ivanov said. "We believe that the best way to obtain this information is to ensure the return of international inspectors to Iraq."
To counter Bush's push for a tougher U.N. stance toward his regime, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agreed Monday to allow weapons inspectors to return to his country for the first time in four years.
Yesterday's developments brought into focus the fluid relationship between Washington and Moscow, in which each finds itself a suitor. Russia seeks U.S. blessing for more aggressive action against Chechen rebels taking refuge in neighboring Georgia. The United States is trying to head off a Russian veto of a U.N. resolution to allow using force against Iraq if Hussein doesn't fully open up his arsenals and weapons laboratories.
Bush spent 30 minutes on the telephone with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, and met in the Oval Office with Ivanov, the foreign minister, and Russia's defense minister, Sergei B. Ivanov.
Bush told Putin that the United Nations must pass resolutions that are "firm, that accomplish the goals of disarmament and don't let Iraq avoid responsibility," Fleischer said.
Referring to the U.N.'s failure to enforce Iraq's compliance with the disarmament resolution adopted at the end of 1991's Persian Gulf war, Fleischer said: "The president just cannot imagine the United Nations making the same mistake twice. The president cannot imagine the United Nations again allowing an inspection regime that will not allow the world to know that Saddam Hussein is disarmed."
Bush appeared receptive to Russian concerns about the Chechens in Georgia, while stopping short of agreeing that Russia has the right to launch a pre-emptive attack on Georgian soil.
Bush is taking a series of diplomatic steps intended to bring recalcitrant members of the Security Council behind the U.S. position on Iraq. Britain has made clear its support. However, Bush has yet to obtain the full backing of France, China or Russia.
Russia has significant economic interests in Iraq, and if the U.S.-led confrontation with Hussein results in war, Russian officials want assurances that they will be protected or compensated.
Russia's chief concerns include a multibillion-dollar Iraqi debt from weapons sales and tens of billions in potential oil production contracts if the United Nations lifts economic sanctions. Moscow suspects that U.S. oil companies are eager to shove Russian oil interests aside and stake out territory for themselves in a post-Hussein Iraq.
James Gerstenzang and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.