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BUSH adviser Rice plays down prospects for summit arms accord with Russia


WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's national security adviser, playing down prospects of a new arms control agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Thursday that Bush would move independently to reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal and to clear the way for an anti-missile shield.

It is not a question of whether the level of warheads Bush has decided upon is acceptable to the Russians, Condoleezza Rice said.

``His desire to cut offensive nuclear forces comes from his belief, which has now been confirmed by a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff ... that the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal exceeds the number of nuclear weapons needed for America's deterrent needs in this particular time.''

A senior Bush administration official said the President was willing to agree with Putin to reduce both the U.S. and Russian stockpiles to fewer than 2,000 _ a reduction of two-thirds of the current level of 6,000 warheads apiece. For his part, the Russian leader is flexible about Bush's plan for a defense against missile attack, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Rice told reporters at the White House that relations with Russia have advanced to a point that a major agreement is not expected from every summit, as occurred during the Cold War.

``Not every meeting has to be accompanied by arms-control agreements,'' she said.

On plans to erect a missile defense system, Rice also said she would not expect ``any particular arrangement to come out of any particular meeting.''

``One should not expect one defining moment,'' the White House official said.

She said the two leaders would work on a new strategic framework for a number of years, and ``we all have to get out of a particular frame of mind'' that the two sides match weapons cutbacks exactly.

Bush said Wednesday he could make a substantial cut in the American arsenal regardless of what happens in the talks in Washington on Tuesday and at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas on Wednesday and Thursday.

``We don't need an arms-control agreement to convince us to reduce our nuclear weapons down substantially, and I'm going to do it,'' Bush said at a joint news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The president said he could not reveal the new and lower ceiling before meeting with Putin. Other U.S. officials have said the Bush administration anticipates a range of 1,750 to 2,250 warheads _ a deep cut from the current level of about 6,000 warheads on each side.

``I have reached a decision, and I spent time thinking about the issue,'' Bush said. ``The United States will move to reduce our offensive weapons to a level commensurate with being able to keep the peace.''

Regarding his quest for the missile defense system, Bush said he was going into the talks with Putin still convinced that a 1972 treaty banning national defenses is outdated.

The war on terrorism underscores the need for a defense, Bush said. If Putin has ``interesting suggestions'' on how to go ahead despite the treaty, Bush said, he is willing to listen.

The U.S. officials, who held a news briefing on condition of anonymity, said the two leaders were unlikely to impose either equal or precise limits on U.S. and Russian warheads.

They are more inclined to set ranges far below the current totals, possibly with different ranges for the United States and Russia, the officials said.

High-level meetings in Washington and Moscow already have produced substantial progress toward an agreement, they said. Parts of the 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation treaty that set up verification procedures to guard against cheating may be adapted to any new pact.

Putin has shifted his position on Bush's plan for an anti-missile shield, they said. They described his change as a startling turnabout.

Last winter, Putin was predicting the unraveling of arms control accords with the United States if Bush went ahead with tests that conflicted with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Now the Russian leader acknowledges that the United States has a right to withdraw from the treaty, and Bush will have to do it to proceed with his program, the official said.

The meeting will be the fourth held by Bush and Putin. Their relationship was on the upswing before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. That trend accelerated with Russia's cooperation in the U.S. campaign against terrorism, the officials said.

On a sensitive subject, Bush will take up with Putin the Russian technological assistance that the administration is convinced Iran has used in its nuclear weapons program, the official said.

Putin insisted in an American television interview taped Monday in the Kremlin that Russia was not providing dangerous weapons technology to Iran.

But Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli general now that country's transportation minister, said Wednesday he was certain ``the central support for the Iranian nuclear project is provided by Russia.''
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