U.S., Czechs near Missile-Defense Pact

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Ward and Bruce I. Konviser, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The U.S. and the Czech Republic are close to an agreement on missile defense, said President Bush and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek yesterday, after a meeting at the White House.

Mr. Topolanek said the remaining discussion is over environmental standards for the radar tracking system, and that it is only "a technical matter, which is going to be resolved very soon."

In remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, with Mr. Topolanek sitting next to him, Mr. Bush spent several minutes trying to allay concerns about the missile-defense system, which are held in the Czech Republic, Russia, and in other Eastern European countries.

Mr. Bush said the system would be "in the context of [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]," but did not yield to demands within the Czech Republic that the missile defense be run by NATO.

"It fits into the concept of NATO, and will honor the sovereignty of the Czech Republic or Poland," Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Bush also said remaining discussions will include negotiations over "a status of forces-type agreement."

"We will be coming to their country," he said. " 'Under what conditions, how will people conduct themselves?' ... These are all very legitimate

questions that the prime minister is asking"

After more than a year of intense bilateral negotiations, and an often acrimonious public debate in Prague, many Czech citizens and government leaders have concerns about the system, which would put a tracking site in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.

Public opinion polls show about 70 percent of Czech voters oppose the missile-defense system. Russia also is suspicious of the plans.

But the Bush administration has made missile-defense bases in Europe a foreign-policy priority in its final year in office. Mr. Bush yesterday tried once again to pacify Russia's concerns that the system is aimed at it, and he appealed to Europe's self-interest.

"Russia could overwhelm a system like this," Mr. Bush said, indicating the system is intended to protect against rogue regimes such as in Iran, or terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, if they obtain nuclear weapons. …