Gates: US asks more time for missile base decision

15:28, 20 February 2009
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"This administration needed more time..."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says Poland has been asked to give America more time to decide how and whether to proceed with a missile shield there and in the Czech Republic, AP reported.

Speaking to a news conference at a NATO meeting in Krakow, Gates told reporters, "I basically told them that this administration needed more time."

Gates noted Friday that President Barack Obama currently is dealing with an economic crisis at home and a review of war policy in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He said the missile shield, which Russia vehemently opposes, also is under review. It was initially proposed by the Bush administration.

Gates said the United States also is engaged in a review currently of its relations with Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP`s earlier story is below.

KRAKOW, Poland (AP) — Russia is conspicuously absent from a gathering of NATO defense chiefs, but Moscow`s agenda and its relations with neighbors and the United States were at the center of much of the discussion here.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that as "an old Cold Warrior" he was proud to sign a new military cooperation agreement with Poland, but told the Polish defense chief that the new Obama administration hasn`t decided the fate of a planned missile shield strongly opposed by Russia.

Gates suggested that Russia undermined U.S. strategic aims in Afghanistan by encouraging a former Soviet republic to evict the U.S. military from a key resupply base. Russian opposition to NATO enlargement loomed over discussions about the possible future membership of Georgia and Ukraine, two U.S. allies that were once part of the old Soviet empire.

Gates said if Moscow really wants to get rid of the missile shield at its doorstep in Europe, it should help eliminate the threat of a missile attack from Iran.

The United States, which began planning for the shield under former President George W. Bush, says it would be a protection for European allies against a theoretical launch from Iran. Russia is part of an international effort to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons but also sells military equipment to Iran.

"The key is to keep in mind what the threat is," Gates said Thursday. "One approach would be to see if we can get better cooperation with the Russians in dealing with some of the activities," that worry the West.

Gates said a final decision on whether the Obama administration would press ahead with the missile shield will have to wait. The program`s future is tied to the new president`s decisions about U.S. policies in Russia and Iran, Gates said. He offered the possibility of new assurances to the Russians that the program is not aimed at them.

"The hope is that now with a new administration the prospects for that kind of cooperation have improved," Gates said.

Russia was not invited to send representatives to the defense meeting, as it has in recent years, because of NATO outrage over Russia`s invasion of Georgia last summer. But ties with Moscow have improved recently, and an official resumption of contacts is expected soon.

Gates said he hasn`t given up hope that Kyrgyzstan will change its mind and continue to let the U.S. military use the Manas air base, a transit point for 15,000 troops and 500 tons of cargo each month to and from Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan`s president signed a bill Friday to close the base, the final step before authorities issue a 180-day eviction order.

Gates said the United States would consider paying more in rent but would not "be ridiculous about it."

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the closure earlier this month, complaining the United States was not paying enough rent for the base. His announcement came shortly after he secured $2.15 billion in aid and loans from Russia for his impoverished Central Asian nation. U.S. officials suspect that Russia, long wary of a U.S. presence in ex-Soviet Central Asia, is behind the decision to shut the Americans out of Kyrgyzstan.

The United States began using the Manas base shortly after it launched operations against Afghanistan for sheltering al-Qaida following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Manas has been the only remaining U.S. base in Central Asia since Uzbekistan expelled the United States from the Karshi-Khanabad base near Afghanistan in 2005. The expulsion followed Western criticism of the Uzbek government`s violent crackdown of a demonstration in the eastern city of Andijan.


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