Missile shields 'could be in Turkey or Iraq'

Russian president Vladimir Putin said today that a joint missile defence plan he proposed to the United States could include interceptor missiles hosted by US allies such as Turkey or even Iraq.

Putin, whose news conference was interrupted by a protester who threw leaflets, also suggested that all European countries could join consultations on a joint US-Russian missile defence system.

“We are proposing to create a pool of European nations to assess missile threats through 2020 and agree on a joint action to fend off these threats,” he said at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany.

Putin’s statement came a day after he proposed to President George Bush to drop US plans to deploy missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and instead create a joint missile defence system with Russia using a powerful radar in Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet Caspian nation.

Russia vehemently opposes the US plan and has suggested it might aim its own missiles at targets in Europe in response.

Bush was noncommittal and the two leaders said they would leave it to military experts to discuss the initiative before again discussing it during their planned meeting at Kennebunkport, Maine, in the United States in early July.

“In this case, there will be no need to build a radar in the Czech Republic and deploy missile interceptors in Poland,” Putin said. “They could be deployed in the south – I’m speaking hypothetically since it’s necessary to conduct talks with relevant nations – possibly in US Nato allies, such as Turkey.”

“Or it could be Iraq – what they have waged the war for? There would be at least some benefit coming out of it,” Putin added on a sarcastic note. He said that the missile interceptors could be also deployed on sea platforms of military ships.

He said that positioning missile defence elements further south would allow to shoot down missiles early in their flight so that their fragments fall into the sea instead of showering on Europe.

An Iraqi government spokesman reacted with annoyance to Putin’s remarks.

“We have nothing to do with the missile shield project. Nobody asked us about this thing,” said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. “Nobody has the right to speak about or decide an issue concerning Iraq except for the Iraqi people. Iraq is a sovereign country that has an elected parliament that makes decisions.”

Putin argued that the Russian proposal would help European security and free Russia of the need to deploy offensive weapons on Russia’s western borders and aim them at US allies in Europe.

“In that case, there will be no need whatsoever to target any facilities in Europe or the United States with our missiles,” Putin said. “Such a need would be totally excluded. And we won’t deploy our missile units in (Russia’s westernmost) Kaliningrad region or move them closer to Russia’s western borders.”

In an apparent attempt to soothe possible Iranian anger over his proposal, Putin argued that the radar in Gabala, Azerbaijan, which Russia proposes to share with the United States, has been operating for a long time.

He also repeated that Iran does not have a long-range missile capability and cited Iranian officials’ statements that Tehran had no intention to attack Europe.

Putin added that even if Iran tests a long-range missile, it would require another four to five years to put it on duty.

“It’s possible to deploy any missile defence anywhere during that time. Why destabilise Europe now?” he said.

As he spoke, a Russian opposition activist threw a handful of leaflets into the air and shouted protests in German, briefly disrupting the news conference.

The activist, Konstantin Schuckmann, 20, later told reporters he was acting on behalf the Other Russia opposition umbrella group led by ex-champion Garry Kasparov that staged the so-called Dissenters Marches in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities.

Schuckmann, a German-Russian dual citizen, got into the tightly-guarded briefing centre on a journalist accreditation but refused to name his media organisation in an apparent fear of Russian government reprisals.

“Outstanding. Well done,” Putin said to the protester in Russian, adding in German: “Young man, give me what you’re throwing.”

He then answered Schuckmann by fending off accusations of backsliding on democracy, saying that Russia’s opposition groups have the right to protest but must obey the law.

Putin promised that Russia’s parliamentary elections this autumn and a presidential vote next year will be democratic, but sternly warned foreign nations against meddling in Russia’s affairs.

“We won’t allow any attempts to intervene and support some political forces in Russia ahead of big political events,” he said.

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