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US Congress Debates US Missile Defense Plan for Europe

The U.S. plan to base defensive missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Europe against potential future threats from Iran was the subject of a congressional hearing Thursday. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, Bush administration officials urged Congress to reverse a cut to funding for the program made by a congressional committee, while opponents raised numerous questions about the plan.

Under the plan, 10 ground-based interceptor missiles would be placed in Poland, and a radar station in the Czech Republic, providing what the Bush administration says would be defensive coverage against intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

At the end of this month, U.S. officials will go to Warsaw and Prague to begin formal negotiations on the system, which they say would help protect U.S. allies in Europe against what the administration calls a real and growing missile threat from the Middle East, primarily Iran.

Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, cites intelligence estimates that Iran, which has medium to short-range missiles, could have long-range missiles before the year 2015. "Along with our European allies and Russia, we are engaged in intensive diplomacy intended to change Iran's current nuclear development plans. This is the best course, and we may succeed. But we may not. And we have in any event a responsibility to defend the American people and our allies," he said.

In Congress, there is both skepticism and support for the plan.

Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who chaired Thursday's hearing, has "deep reservations" about the effectiveness of the technology involved, the cost of the program, and the impact on relations with other European countries. "I believe it is unacceptable for the American people who have footed hundreds of billions of dollars for the war in Iraq, to once again provide a blank check to the president to spend billions more on a questionable missile defense program, whose costs at a minimum ought to be shared by our European allies," he said.

Wexler adds that while lawmakers appreciate the threat presented by Iran, the missile defense program appears to offer no defensive impact when it comes to helping protect Israel from any potential threat from Iranian missiles.

This week, a House subcommittee cut money that was to have gone to develop the interceptor sites in Poland, while providing funds for the radar facility in the Czech Republic.

Republican Ed Royce voiced concern about that, and about Russian opposition to the plan, which he says is based on self-interest. "In attacking this deployment, Russia says Iran will pose no threat to Europe for a long time if ever. Many Europeans respectfully disagree with that Russian assertion," he said.

Democrat Brad Sherman says the program threatens not only bilateral ties with Moscow, but U.S. efforts to obtain Russian cooperation in the standoff with Iran over its uranium enrichment and suspected nuclear weapons plans. "Our plan to put pressure on the Iranian government is a manifest failure. The centrifuges turn at Natanz. And I can think of no better way to assure that Russia will do very little, and they have done a little, but do very little to help us stop the Iranian program then to stick it to them by putting our missiles in what used to be their allies," he said.

John Rood, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, says the U.S. continues to consult closely with Russia on its concerns, adding that the program it is not directed at Russia and that interceptors would have "little or no capability" against Russia's strategic offensive force.

Rood appealed to lawmakers to reverse the cut to interceptor funding and support President Bush's 2008 budget request for 310-million dollars for the program. "We obviously would like to see the Congress fully fund the president's request. I think if we were left in a situation where at the opening of the negotiations the Congress were moving to cut those, obviously that will undermine the negotiations, it will present issues for us in our discussions with those allies," he said.

In his testimony, Daniel Fried said the U.S. has proposed to Russia what he called "various opportunities" for cooperation on missile defense and is awaiting a response.

At last week's NATO foreign minister's meeting in Norway, Fried said there was "near unanimity" in support of missile defense from NATO allies, adding that NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer stated that the U.S. missile defense plans do not upset the strategic balance in Europe.