U.S. and Czech Republic to sign missile shield accord

Posted in Europe , United States | 07-Jul-08 | Source: International Herald Tribune

A Czech protest against the installation of American missile-defense radar.

PRAGUE: The Czech Republic will sign a treaty Tuesday to build a U.S. missile defense radar system on Czech soil despite opposition at home and in Russia.

Washington wants to build the radar southwest of Prague and put 10 interceptor rockets in Poland as a part of a defense shield that it says will protect the United States and European allies from "rogue states" such as Iran.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will sign the plan in Prague, but it faces some hurdles. Talks with Poland have stalled over Warsaw's demands for U.S. aid to help modernize its army, and the Czech treaty will face opposition in Parliament.

But the Czech government said the shield would offer protection along with the country's NATO and European Union membership.

"Missile technology is spreading around the world," Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said in an interview. "The threat is not totally acute, but one has to prepare in time."

Analysts say that bases in the former Soviet bloc would raise U.S. security interest in the region at a time when Russia grows more assertive about its role on the global scene. Russia regards the missile shield as a threat to itself.

"While Washington's concerns about Iran are real, it's also true that in setting up these missile defense components, the United States will have a direct stake in the security of central and eastern Europe," said Alexander Kliment, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S. political risk consultancy.

Disputes over the radar have alienated many Czechs, wary of any foreign military presence after the Soviet invasion in 1968 and the following two decades of occupation.

An opinion poll last month showed 68 percent of Czechs were against the shield, while 24 percent supported it.

Anti-radar activists say the radar will make the Czech Republic a target and undermine its security.

The leftist opposition in Parliament has channeled the public discontent, and ratification is uncertain.

The three-party cabinet has just 100 seats in the 200-seat lower house and several backbenchers have said they would vote against. The government must win over several independents.

The Green Party, a junior government partner, says ratification should be delayed until a new U.S. administration takes over.

Unlike the Czechs, Poland has demanded billions of dollars for the modernization of its army, mainly air defenses. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Friday that U.S. proposals were insufficient but that Poland was ready to negotiate further.

General Henry Obering, head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, has said that U.S. intelligence suggests that by 2015, Iran could follow North Korea's example and develop a long-range missile capable of striking the United Sates.

The United States brought an anti-missile umbrella, based in Alaska and California, on line in 2004 to protect against the perceived North Korean threat. The Czech and Polish sites would augment that system.

The proposed $3.5 billion system would use technology in which an array of sensors and radar would detect an enemy missile in flight and guide a ground-based interceptor to destroy it.

If approved, construction on both sites could begin in 2009, and could begin functioning in 2011 to 2013.