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Putin questions Bush on efforts to fight terrorism

Saturday, November 23, 2002

PUSHKIN, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush on Friday the United States should not wage war alone against Iraq, and he put Bush on the spot by questioning whether White House allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are doing enough to fight terrorism.

"Where has Osama bin Laden taken refuge?" the Russian said in a joint news conference with Bush at an 18th-century czarist castle.

The sharply worded question, though not a direct criticism of Bush, touched a nerve with the U.S. delegation and underscored the frustration felt by U.S. officials since the al-Qaida leader resurfaced after months of silence in an audiotape praising recent terrorist attacks.

In Washington, Democratic leaders have accused Bush of focusing on Iraq at the expense of the broader war on terrorism. Some have suggested the White House fueled a conflict with Iraq to take command of the agenda for midterm elections, which resulted in big GOP gains.

Meeting with Putin beneath the golden domes of Catherine Palace, Bush cited the recent arrest of al-Qaida's Persian Gulf operations chief, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, as evidence of the U.S.-led coalition's success.

"People who love freedom are one person safer as a result of us finding this guy," the president said. "We did bring to justice a killer."

But Putin, while issuing a statement in support of Bush's Iraq policy, followed quickly with severe doubts about the war on terrorism. It was not clear whether he was putting more weight on the fight against terrorists than the Iraq conflict, but that implication could be drawn.

"We should not forget about those who finance terrorism," Putin said, noting that 15 of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudi citizens. "We should not forget about that."

Putin also cited reports that bin Laden is hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, wondering aloud whether Pakistan President Musharraf Pervez has done enough to stabilize the area.

Three-hour stop

Heavy in symbolism, the three-hour stop in Russia was Bush's way of thanking Putin for supporting a U.N. resolution requiring Iraq to disarm. He came here from the Czech Republic, where 19 NATO allies voted to expand the Western alliance into the former Soviet bloc.

Early this month, as Bush lobbied Putin over the phone for support on Iraq, the Russian told Bush he should come here after the NATO summit. Unspoken by Putin -- but clear to Bush -- was the message that Russians need reassurance that an expanded NATO won't harm their nation.

"Russia's a friend, not an enemy," Bush said at the news conference.

Putin said he did not think the alliance's expansion was necessary but pledged to maintain warm relations.

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