, MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin said this weekend that the United States faced the possibility of a prolonged, bloody and ultimately futile war in Iraq like the one that mired the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In an expansive interview on Saturday evening, Putin warned that Iraq could “become a new center, a new magnet for all destructive elements.” He added, without naming them, that “a great number of members of different terrorist organizations” have been drawn into the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

To respond to this emerging threat, he said, the Bush administration must move quickly to restore sovereignty to Iraqis and to secure a new UN resolution that would clearly define how long international forces would remain in Iraq.

“How are the local population to treat forces whose name is the occupying force?” he said, suggesting that further hostility to America is inevitable unless its occupation of Iraq receives the international legitimacy it now lacks.

Putin said for the first time that Russia was prepared to offer Iraq partial relief on the $8 billion it was owed, but only in coordination with other major creditor nations grouped in the Paris Club. The United States has been struggling to persuade European allies to make significant financial contributions to help rebuild Iraq.

During an interview that lasted close to three hours and covered topics including Iraq, Russia's economic development and the state of democracy here, Putin repeatedly characterized Russia's relations with America, and particularly his own with President George W. Bush, as close and frank – those of a partner; even, at times, an ally.

But at the same time, he was sharply critical of American complaints about Chechnya, of humiliating new visa requirements for Russians, of what he called lingering Cold War habits of mind, and of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq, which he simply called “an error.”

Saddam's government had, with reason, been called “a criminal one,” Putin said, but he disputed one of Bush's core justifications for attacking Iraq in March: its alleged ties to international Islamic militancy and terrorism. Rather, he suggested that the invasion of Iraq had created a terrorist haven where one did not exist previously.

“It struggled against the fundamentalists,” Putin said of Saddam's government. “He either exterminated them physically or put them in jail or just sent them into exile.”

Now, he added, with Saddam gone, “the coalition forces received two enemies at once – both the remains of the Saddam regime who fight with them and those who Saddam himself had fought in the past – the fundamentalists.”

Putin ruled out, for now, sending Russian troops to help in Iraq and said that while a variety of international military contingents provided political support for America in Iraq, they were not much use in other respects because they “abuse alcohol,” “begin to sell weapons” and only think about “fleeing as soon as possible.”

He declined to say which countries' soldiers he had in mind. Several dozen nations have contributed to the America-led effort in Iraq – including Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Spain, Portugal and Mongolia – usually with small contingents.

Putin did not identify the militants entering Iraq but said they came “from all the Muslim world.”

These militants, he said, might now find themselves at ease in Iraq, as they once were among the Afghans, and the danger of a decadelong struggle like the one fought by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980's exists. Such fears, he added, “are not groundless.”

Putin spoke at his wooded presidential compound in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow. He appeared relaxed, but he was also fiercely concentrated, speaking animatedly at times and displaying his growing understanding of English by correcting an interpreter on his use of particular words.

As he did during his recent trip to the United States, he seemed eager to present a softer, more congenial image – perhaps in response to a flurry of advertisements, protests and newspaper columns suggesting that he was an autocrat who is reversing Russia's democracy. Putin intermittently stroked his black Labrador, Koni, who bounded in halfway through the interview.

Putin said Russia had sought to address the Bush administration's concerns about the construction of a civilian nuclear reactor in Iran by insisting that Iran agree to return any spent nuclear fuel – an agreement that has not yet been sealed. He complained that American and European companies with contracts in technologies that also assist Iran's nuclear ambitions – he did not cite them – did not face sanctions, as some Russian companies have.

At the same time, he reiterated his call on Iran's leaders to accept expanded inspections of their nuclear facilities, saying they had no reason to object if they had nothing to hide.

“We are not only hearing what our U.S. partners are telling us, we are listening to what they have to say,” he said. “And we are finding that some of their assertions are justified.”

On the violent, protracted conflict in Chechnya, an open sore in Russia's standing in the world, Putin portrayed the presidential election held on Sunday as an important step in a political settlement to end four years of conflict – not unlike, he said, what was needed in Iraq.

The results of Sunday's vote will not be announced until Monday, but the election has been widely criticized as a farce that will end with the victory of the Kremlin's handpicked leader there, Akhmad Kadyrov. As he has before, Putin dismissed the criticism and bemoaned what he called an American double standard in which Islamic fighters in Chechnya are called democrats, while those in Afghanistan and Iraq are called criminals. He also joked that when it came to elections, the United States had its own problems.

“As yet you have not yet mastered well the situation in California,” he said.
Source: The International Herald Tribune