Russia to join negotiations on reducing debts of Iraq

Difficult talks remain over extent of forgiveness


MOSCOW - The Kremlin announced last night that Russia would join negotiations to reduce Iraq's crushing foreign debt, but emphasized that the talks would have to address the interests of Russian companies that signed lucrative contracts with the former government of Saddam Hussein.

The Russian agreement culminated three days of meetings among European leaders and James A. Baker III, the special envoy appointed by President Bush to persuade skeptical nations to support the administration's plans for building a new Iraq.

The mission has thrust Baker, 73, back onto the stage of international diplomacy, but his first trip as Bush's envoy was far more restrained - almost subdued - than those during his travels as secretary of state under President Bush's father.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin began the meeting with Baker at the Kremlin by pointing out that they had met before, when Baker visited St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. At the time, Putin was a little-known aide in the city's reformist post-Soviet government.

Baker and Putin did not appear in public together. The Kremlin issued a curt two-paragraph statement saying Russia was prepared to begin negotiations "in the near future" through the Paris Club, a group of 19 industrialized nations that have worked together since 1956 to ease the financial burdens of heavily indebted nations.

Although Baker secured similar pledges from France, Germany, Italy and Britain, difficult negotiations remain over the extent of the debt reductions.

Iraq owes Russia nearly $8 billion in loans and interest, mostly from arms sales to Hussein's government before United Nations sanctions were imposed after 1990.

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