Blair visits Russia for talks on Iraq

KOZLOVO, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin gave a warm greeting to British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday as Washington's strongest supporter in the Iraq tensions arrived for talks aimed at winning Russia's support for tough measures against Saddam Hussein.

Blair and his wife Cherie flew to Moscow under a wet snow and arrived by helicopter at Zavidovo, a presidential residence in the countryside about 75 miles north of the capital.

Putin and his wife Lyudmila enthusiastically greeted the Blairs and showed them around the elegant residence, with Putin talking to Blair in the English that he has been assiduously practicing. None spoke to journalists.

The setting and the smiles underlined the close relationship that Blair has cultivated with Putin and that may be a significant factor in the talks. Analysts say Blair's reassurances that Russia's interests in Iraq would be looked after would carry weight because of the trust between the two.

Russia's opposition to military action against Iraq apparently has little to do with support for Saddam, but hinges primarily on money. The Kremlin is concerned about the $7 billion Baghdad owes in Soviet-era debt and if Russian oil companies would continue to have access to Iraqi oil fields if Saddam is ousted.