Bush, Putin discuss Iran, nuclear weapons over lunch

Wednesday, November 15th 2006, 6:34 am

By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ President Bush, eager for Russian help in ongoing nuclear disputes with North Korea and Iran, tended to the sometimes frosty Washington-Moscow relationship Wednesday by paying a quick call on President Vladimir Putin.

Bush paused to visit the Russian leader for an hour and a half at an airport stopover on his way to Asia for an eight-day trip that includes stays in Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Bush has meetings scheduled with several important allies, including Putin, on the sidelines of a summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, later this week. But only Putin rated a social call as well.

Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov as saying the two presidents discussed the Iranian nuclear program, the situation in the Middle East and nuclear nonproliferation.

Gromov also confirmed that a bilateral agreement on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization was being readied for signing in Hanoi.

When Bush and his wife, Laura, landed, they were greeted on a red carpet on the tarmac by Putin and his wife, Lyudmila. The Russian president presented Mrs. Bush with a bouquet of yellow, orange and red flowers and the foursome exchanged kisses.

Inside the marble-floored Vnukovo Airport terminal, the two couples took seats in ornate armchairs for photographers, a table nearby laid with lunch. The Bushes presented their hosts with a gift of a jumbo photograph of the four of them in one of the golf-cart sized electric cars that the Russians made available to leaders attending the Group of Eight summit Putin hosted in St. Petersburg in June.

The brief gathering was billed by White House advisers as not much more than a greeting between friends while Bush accepted the Russian generosity of allowing Air Force One to refuel in Moscow halfway through the 19-hour flight to Singapore. But the rarity of a president flying east to Asia, rather than west, no doubt reflected that the Washington-Moscow relationship needs a little extra care lately.

Russian officials described the meeting as cordial. As Bush was boarding his plane to resume his journey, he got a hug from Putin.

Russia voted for U.S.-backed United Nations sanctions on North Korea after it conducted a nuclear weapons test. Now Washington is seeking to overcome Russian reluctance toward an upcoming vote on U.N. sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

At the same time, the Bush administration has sharpened criticism of democratic erosion under Putin this year, particularly with the murder last month of a reporter critical of Russian policy in Chechnya. Objections include a Russian law restricting charity groups.

Russia's escalating spat with Georgia, a former Soviet republic, has also clouded relations with the United States. Putin, aware of cooling relations with the United States and Europe, also has been working to build Russia's influence in its neighborhood and in Asia.

On Russia's side, relations have been strained by delays in an agreement with Washington for Moscow's entry into the WTO, a longtime Russian goal. Now, after 12 years of negotiations, the countries are moving toward signing a bilateral pact in Hanoi.

Russia's trade ministry said the minister, German Gref, expects to sign the long-anticipated WTO deal Sunday with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.

Putin and Bush also are due to meet again Sunday in Hanoi.

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