US missile deal may face obstacles

( AP ) - The Bush administration wants deals by the end of the year for missile defense bases in Eastern Europe, but getting the Czech Republic and Poland to go along with that timetable could be difficult.

Poland's opposition party ousted ruling conservatives in parliamentary elections on Sunday, though Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Monday he still believes Warsaw will cooperate.

The Pentagon wants to install 10 interceptor rockets in Poland which, when linked to a proposed tracking radar in the Czech Republic and to other elements of the existing U.S. missile defense system based in the United States, could defend all of Europe against a long-range missile fired from the Middle East.

Gates planned to hold talks Tuesday in Prague with top government officials as well as members of parliament representing a range of views on missile defense, which is not popular with the general Czech public.

Gates, asked about possible ramifications of the Polish elections for the Pentagon's missile defense expansion plan, said the United States has enjoyed good cooperation from Poland regardless of the makeup of its government.

The Polish opposition doesn't oppose hosting a U.S. missile base, but has criticized the outgoing government for not taking a tougher stance in negotiations.

"I expect that cooperation to continue," Gates said in Kiev, Ukraine, while making no firm prediction. "Obviously we'll have discussions with the new government of Poland in terms of their specific plans. We clearly are hopeful that the kind of cooperation we've enjoyed recently - both in Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand, and in moving toward negotiating an agreement on missile defense - will continue as before."

Critics say no such system is needed in the foreseeable future because no country in the Middle East, including Iran, now possesses a ballistic missile with sufficient range to threaten all of Europe or the United States.

The Bush administration's negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland are being run mainly by the State Department. Pentagon officials have said the goal is to reach a deal by the end of the year and to gain parliamentary approval in both European countries by next spring, allowing construction to begin.

The aim is to have both missile defense sites ready for limited operation by 2011 and fully operational by 2013. Russia strongly opposes the U.S. system, including the planned expansion into Europe. Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin urged Washington to freeze negotiations with Warsaw and Prague.

Many in Congress also oppose adding the two European sites.

While in Prague, Gates also was expected to discuss with Czech officials the future of their country's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Czech Republic has troops in both countries.

It was Gates' first trip to the Czech Republic and the first by a U.S. defense secretary since Donald Rumsfeld in 2002.

During his stop in Kiev on Monday, Gates set the stage for potentially tough talks later this week at a NATO meeting in the Netherlands by publicly criticizing European members of the U.S.-led alliance for failing to provide the extra troops that their governments promised last year for security duties in Afghanistan.

The main shortfall is in troops to serve as trainers for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police.

Gates said he intended to pursue the matter at the NATO defense ministers meeting Wednesday and Thursday at a Dutch seaside hotel.

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