US lawmakers plan to cut some European shield funds

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WASHINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) US lawmakers will cut 85 million dollars from a military spending bill meant to start construction on a European missile shield that Moscow opposes, a congressional aide said.

Democratic and Republican negotiators in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed to provide money for the missiles, parts and radar but not the construction of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, the House Democratic aide said.

The fiscal 2008 spending bill still must go through several steps in Congress before landing on President George W. Bush's desk. Rep John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs a House panel that oversees defense spending, told Reuters the bill could be debated next week on the House floor.

''The US does not have a basic agreement with the European governments over the complete details of this program. So given these circumstances, the conferees cut 85 million dollars from the missile field construction,'' the aide said yesterday.

The Bush administration wants to place 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic to counter what it says are potential missile threats from Iran and North Korea.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, referring to Iran, told a Pentagon briefing Thursday, ''We know that they have acquired from North Korea missiles that potentially have a range of 2,500 kilometers''.

''And our belief is we will see those flight tests considerably sooner than the Russians seem to think we will see those flight tests,'' he said without referring to a specific Iranian missile.

''And I don't know -- when the Russians say that the Iranians might not have a missile that could hit Europe or the United States for 20 -- 15 or 20 years, frankly, I don't know what they're talking about,'' Gates said.

EUROPEAN NATIONS' AGREEMENT The Eastern European leg of the emerging US antimissile shield would cost about 3.5 billion dollars, and Bush asked Congress for 310 million dollars this year.

Washington has not yet secured Poland's or the Czech Republic's agreement on the plans.

Moscow opposes the project, saying the system would threaten Russian security. Despite a series of talks this year, Russia and the United States appear no closer to agreement on the issue.

The Pentagon yesterday urged Congress to fund the program to send a signal to Russia that Washington is serious about the European shield.

''Funding this sends a signal to the Poles and the Czechs, who we wish to partner with, that we are serious about this and it sends an equal signal to the Russians that we're serious about this,'' said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Under current plans, US defense officials say the European system could be fully operational by 2013.

''We are of the belief that continued funding of missile defense is essential towards achieving our policy objective, which is deploying this system,'' Morrell said.

''Any interruption in funding would impede that and would strip us of much needed leverage in dealing not just with those that we're negotiating with but also in dealing with the Russians.'' Reuters BJR VP0420

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