MOSCOW - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Moscow would put aside its opposition to a U.S. military operation against Iraq if Washington provides evidence that Baghdad has weapons of mass destruction.
"Moscow's position regarding a military operation against Iraq will depend on the information given to us by the American side about Baghdad's possession of weapons of mass destruction," the Interfax news agency quoted Ivanov as saying Wednesday in Washington, where he arrived for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
However, he said such information could only be confirmed or disproved "on the spot," according to Interfax and the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Iraq surprised the world this week by consenting to invite back United Nations weapons inspectors after a nearly four-year absence.
Ivanov said the first group of 43 inspectors would depart for Iraq this week. However, U.N. officials have said arrangements for the return of inspectors would be completed only by Oct. 6.
Washington is pushing for a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq that would set a deadline for the return of inspectors and threaten consequences if Iraq doesn't cooperate. However, Russia says there is no need for a new resolution and that inspectors could deploy swiftly.
Ivanov said that once there, the inspectors could complete their task quickly.
"I believe that one month will be enough for the inspectors to determine whether the production of weapons of mass destruction exists in Iraq or not," Interfax and ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.
A former top Russian defense ministry official, retired Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, predicted Thursday that the United States would launch an attack on Iraq despite opposition from Russia and other countries. Ivashov warned that with the United States taking control over Iraq's oil resources, world oil prices will plummet to the detriment of Russia, the world's second-largest oil exporter.
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's lower parliament house, Dmitry Rogozin, said the return of inspectors to Iraq would not "cancel the U.S. thesis that the regime of Saddam Hussein must be done away with," the Interfax news agency reported. But Rogozin said that if inspectors are able to do their job freely, America's allies will have no reason to support military action.
Moscow has long been a strong ally of Baghdad and fears a U.S. strike could threaten its economic interests in Iraq, which owes Moscow dlrs 7 billion in Soviet-era debt.
Ivanov, in Washington as part of a series of meetings on security cooperation agreed in May by U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, also defended Russia's cooperation with Iran and North Korea. Those countries, along with Iraq, have been singled out by Bush as an "axis of evil" for their attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Ivanov said that Moscow provides Tehran only with "defensive weapons," including anti-tank weapons, small arms, armored personnel carriers and air defense systems, Interfax reported.
"These types of weapons cannot be of a destabilizing character," he said, adding that there had been no talk of supplying offensive weapons to Iran.
Regarding North Korea, Ivanov said Russia's military cooperation with that country was a purely economic matter, depending solely "on the economic possibilities of Pyongyang," according to Interfax.
"There is no political basis for bilateral cooperation in the military sphere," Ivanov said.