U.S. officials are stepping up efforts to persuade skeptical European nations about what the Bush administration argues is the need for extending missile defense over Europe. A key administration official briefed U.S. lawmakers Wednesday on his recent consultations in Europe as Defense Secretary Robert Gates concluded his own tour of the continent to promote U.S. plans for a missile shield. VOA's Deborah Tate reports.

The head of the missile defense program says the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have signaled their support for U.S. plans to extend a missile shield over Europe.

The United States has proposed basing 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a missile tracking radar system in the Czech Republic.

Although neither country has formally agreed to the plans, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, says negotiations with both governments are expected soon.

"We believe that formal negotiations for both countries should begin in about the mid-May time frame," said General Obering. "We believe we are getting strong support from within the governments there in Poland and the Czech Republic."

Obering made his comments before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, where he appealed for support for the Bush administration's $8.9 - billion request for the missile defense program for the 2008 budget year.

The administration says the program is crucial to defending against potential future missile attacks from Iran or North Korea - an argument Obering reiterated:

"The threat we are facing from ballistic missiles is real and growing," he said. "As we look to the gathering clouds of the threat on the horizon, I believe we are reaching a critical point. In moving ahead strongly with our allies in building missile defenses, we can send a strong message to our enemies."

Obering acknowledged public opposition in Poland and the Czech Republic to using their soil to extend the missile shield over the continent, but he said popular opinion was misinformed. He said the United States is working with both governments to help inform the Poles and Czechs of the benefits of the program.

Many other European countries have also criticized the U.S. proposal - particularly Russia, which says it could revive an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Berlin Wednesday at the end of his own European visit to promote missile defense, acknowledged Russian skepticism.

"I think that there clearly have to be divisions in Moscow on how to respond, frankly," said Robert Gates.

In an effort to ease Russian concerns about the U.S. missile shield plans, Gates - who visited Moscow Monday - said the United States has offered to cooperate with Russia on the program.

"We've made a very forthcoming offer, to partner with the Russians, we've invited them to come and see our interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and we've invited them to come see our radar in California," he said. "We've even offered if appropriate, to co-locate radars with them and share data so we've made some very far reaching proposals."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to press the issue with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at a NATO ministerial meeting in Oslo Thursday.