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US, Czech Republic Sign Controversial Missile Radar Deal

The United States and the Czech Republic have signed an agreement that will allow construction of part of a missile defense shield. Stefan Bos from Budapest that the document was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Czech counterpart, despite mounting opposition against the project.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg signed a deal to build a radar station southwest of Prague, which will be part of a missile-defense system the United States says is aimed at shooting down missiles that may be fired from Iran or North Korea.

Besides the tracking radar system in the Czech Republic, the United States plans to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Washington wants the sites to be in operation by 2012.

Talks are reportedly also under way to station up to 250 American troops in the Czech military base in Brdy, to service the radar station.

But the agreement faces major political hurdles. The accord has to be ratified by a divided Czech parliament where the government has just half the chamber's 200 seats.

In addition, opinion polls show two-thirds of Czechs opposing the project and there have been demonstrations and hunger strikes against the plan.

Analysts say there is general mistrust towards foreign powers in the Czech Republic, which this year commemorates the 40th anniversary of the invasion by the Soviet Union that crushed a period of political and economic reforms, known as the Prague Spring.

Another concern is Russia's opposition towards the missile-defense system, saying it would pose a threat to its own security. Moscow has threatened to aim its own, potentially nuclear, missiles at any eventual base in the Czech Republic or Poland.

But speaking at a news conference, Secretary Rice tried to play down these concerns, saying the missile-defense system would not only benefit the United States.

"This missile defense agreement is significant as a building block, not just for the security of the United States and of the Czech Republic, but for the security of NATO and ultimately for the security of the international community as a whole because we do face important threats," she said.

She ruled out going to neighboring Poland after talks with Warsaw appeared to break down over that country's demands for billions of dollars to modernize its army and air defenses. Rice said earlier negotiations had been constructive, but would not predict whether the two sides would reach a deal.

She is to travel to Bulgaria and Georgia on her European trip this week.