US, Russia trade barbs over Middle East policy


The United States brushed aside criticism from Russia about its policies in the Middle East, as a diplomatic spat gained steam between the two former Cold War adversaries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, fresh from talks in Washington with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was quoted by the Interfax news agency over the weekend saying the current US administration was probably Moscow's "most difficult" partner.

Russia, "like any other country, is interested in good, equal and clear relations with the US," Lavrov was quoted as saying in an interview Sunday on Kultura TV. "It is hard to build such relations," he said.

"I think this is a difficult partner to deal with, probably the most difficult one," he said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack shot back that he would consider such a remark from Lavrov a compliment.

"We stand up for what we think is right and we stand up on principle and we stand up for our national interest (and) in defense of freedom and democracy," McCormack told reporters when asked to comment on Lavrov's remarks.

"If that makes us a difficult negotiating partner, then I guess I will take that as a badge of honor," he said, calling Lavrov "a tough advocate for his country's national interest."

Lavrov clashed publicly with Rice during a press conference here Friday when he challenged the US policy of refusing to dialogue with Iran, Syria or the Palestinian and Lebanese militia they support -- Hamas and Hezbollah.

Sitting beside Rice at the joint press conference of the so-called Mideast Quartet, Lavrov said "Syria could play a constructive role" in trying to resolve various Middle East crises like Iraq, Lebanon and the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Lavrov also chided the US-backed aid and diplomatic boycott of Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the Palestinian government, saying "I don't think that to resolve this problem... you could do it through boycott and isolation."

He called the stance "counterproductive."

Rice responded sharply in defense of Washington's hardline stance.

"Syria knows what it needs to do to be a stabilizing force, not just in the Palestinian-Israeli issue but in the region as a whole," Rice said.

Friday's ministerial meeting of the Quartet -- the US, EU, UN and Russia -- backed a planned initiative by Rice to accelerate efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, notably by hosting a meeting later this month between Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In the weekend interview, Lavrov blamed Washington's stance for obstructing progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

"The Middle East settlement has been suspended because, despite our position and the position of the EU, Washington has conducted policy based on the principle 'He who is not with us, is against us,'" he was quoted as saying.

"That's what's happening with Iran, Syria, the Hamas movement, Hezbollah, despite the fact they are key actors in solving the Middle East puzzle," he said.