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U.S. objects to Russian sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria

WASHINGTON—The White House Thursday objected to Russian plans to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

The proposed sale has sparked concern in Washington a week before President Bush is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Europe and raises more questions about the extent to which Bush can rely on Putin in his campaign against terrorism.

The sale to Syria, which the Bush administration considers a state sponsor of terrorism, also could cause embarrassment in view of plans for Bush and Putin to sign a deal to control portable anti-aircraft missiles favored by terrorists, state and defense department officials said.

It comes as the White House is seeking to sharply increase international pressure on Syria in the aftermath of Monday's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Russia's Defense Ministry confirmed Wednesday that it's negotiating with Syria to sell a truck-mounted missile-launching system known as Strelets, despite opposition from the United States and Israel.

"We have some concerns about it," Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters Thursday. "We've raised them with the Russian government in an appropriate way, and other countries have raised their concerns as well, and we are hopeful and confident that the Russians will take them into account."

The sale could trigger sanctions against Moscow or Russian entities under a U.S. law targeting weapons sales to state sponsors of terrorism. Bush can waive the sanctions.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have bet heavily on the president's close personal relationship with Putin. The two men meet in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Feb. 24.

But Putin appears increasingly inclined to ignore U.S. views, including at home, where he has centralized power, clamped down on the media and marginalized opponents.

"Now, there's a debate within the administration," said Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "There's more skepticism about what exactly are we getting out of this relationship."

Russian officials, who frequently complain that the United States is trying to keep them out of arms markets, say the Syrian sale doesn't violate the proposed Bush-Putin accord or other international weapons treaties.

Strelets, which translates roughly as "shooter," is a system of four anti-aircraft missile launchers mounted on a truck.

But U.S. and Israeli officials worry that the missiles could be detached and provided to anti-American insurgents in Iraq or terrorist groups such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah that are opposed to Israel.

"Mounting and dismounting a missile off an armored personnel carrier is something that can be done in a garage," said Ariel Cohen, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Cohen equated the proposed sale to "poking a finger into Bush's eye."

A defense official acknowledged that the United States has made an argument similar to the Russians' when it sold a truck-mounted missile system known as Avenger to Egypt. But the missiles used by Avenger can't be fitted to a hand-held launcher, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A senior U.S. official, who also requested anonymity, said the U.S.-Russian agreement to control hand-held missiles, known as man-portable air defense systems or MANPADs, is set for signing by Bush and Putin in Slovakia.

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(Mark McDonald in Moscow and John Walcott in Washington contributed to this story.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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