Putin says Iraq shows Russia needs strong army

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MOSCOW, Oct 18 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin promised today new nuclear weapons as part of Moscow's military build-up, saying the experience of Iraq showed the need for resource-rich countries to keep strong defences.

In a televised question-and-answer session with Russian citizens ahead of elections in December, Putin also told the United States to set a date for withdrawing all its troops from Iraq and warned Washington against using force in Iran.

''Thank God Russia is not Iraq,'' Putin told a questioner who asked about supposed US intentions to gain control of Siberia's vast natural resources. ''It is strong enough to protect its interests within the national territory and, by the way, in other regions of the world.'' ''... What we are doing to increase our defence capability is the correct choice and we will continue to do that,'' he added.

Answering a question from a soldier based at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the far north, where troops test-fired a long-range missile earlier in the day, Putin promised new nuclear weapons technology as part of important defence plans.

''We will develop missile technology including completely new strategic (nuclear) complexes, completely new,'' he said.

''Work is continuing and continuing successfully.'' ''We will not only give attention to the whole nuclear triad -- strategic rocket forces, strategic aviation and the nuclear submarine fleet -- but also other types of weapons''.

Putin, who faces parliamentary elections in December, hailed Russia's continued strong economic growth and rising living standards during exchanges with questioners connected live from different Russian cities.

He admitted that inflation, which at 8.5 per cent in the year to date has exceeded the government's target for the whole year, was a problem but blamed global economic factors such as cuts in European agricultural subsidies and demand for biofuels.

Putin also claimed that Russia's demographic crisis was easing, with the birthrate reaching a 15-year high and the death rate falling to its lowest level since 1999.

PUTIN'S FUTURE More than a million Russians applied to quiz Putin in the session, the sixth such annual event he has held to show he is in touch with the nation.

Kremlin-watchers were following the event carefully for clues to what Putin plans after he steps down next year: whom he will endorse to succeed him and what role Putin himself will take to preserve his influence.

This year's format began as in previous years, with a strong focus on domestic, bread-and-butter issues such as pensions, schools, prices and investment in the Far East.

A selection of questions on the organisers' Web site, www.president-line.ru, suggested citizens were preoccupied with issues including rising utility bills, healthcare and students' finances.

The site said that by 10:30 am (1200IST) today, 1,607 million questions had been submitted.

The session is almost certain to be Putin's last before he steps down as president next year when his second term ends. The constitution bars a president from serving more than two consecutive stints.

Putin has said he will endorse the person he thinks is best suited to replace him. Opinion polls suggest that given Putin's personal popularity, that person will be the overwhelming favourite to win the March 2008 presidential election.

The Russian leader, who is 55, has said he will retain influence after he leaves the presidency.

He said earlier this month it was possible he could become prime minister. Some observers say he is leaving open the possibility of returning to the presidency at a later date.

REUTERS SKB HT1608

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