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Russia's Putin Skeptical About Iraq Election

At a Kremlin meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi he has doubts about how elections can be held under current security conditions in Iraq. The Iraqi leader is now on a three-day visit to Russia.

Oil and energy issues were the main items on the agenda as President Putin received Mr. Allawi in the Kremlin.

But Mr. Putin used the occasion to express Russia's views on the situation in Iraq.

The Russian leader says he has a hard time understanding how it is possible to organize elections under what he calls the conditions of "occupation by foreign forces."

For his part, Mr. Allawi says Russia will be given a "leading role" in helping to restore Iraq's industries, including oil.

He said this was largely due to Mr. Putin's recent decision to write off 90 percent of Baghdad's estimated $8 billion debt, much of which was incurred by the Saddam Hussein regime to purchase military equipment.

Russia has also played a role in convincing other countries in the Paris Club of lending nations to write off more of Iraq's debt as it struggles to reconstruct.

Russia's oil interests in Iraq are substantial, including a major drilling and exploration deal the Lukoil company signed with Saddam's government in 1997.

All such deals have been on hold since the U.S.-led invasion last year.

Russia opposed the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein last year and has refused to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq.

However, the Kremlin says it is time to move forward and supports international efforts to help rebuild the country.

But in the last few days Mr. Putin and other officials have expressed concern about the security situation preceding the elections on January 30.

In a recent interview, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the world community must seek to prevent "Iraq's transformation into a bankrupt state that will be a permanent seat of tension in the Middle East."