Row over heir to `Star Wars'

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THE UNITED States has sparked a dispute with Russia over Washington's plans for a new anti-missile system, bringing a whiff of the Cold War back to relations with Moscow.

The new threat is not Russia, however, but what the US calls "rogue states" - such as North Korea - which it suspects of having missiles capable of reaching the American mainland. The National Missile Defence is the heir of Star Wars, the plan by former president Ronald Reagan to use space- based interceptors and ground systems to make the US invulnerable to missile attack. The latest scheme is a much smaller version, based on ground interceptor missiles.

But the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a landmark in arms control between Moscow and Washington, puts limits on systems. President Bill Clinton sent a letter to Moscow on Wednesday, saying he wanted to revise the treaty.

"We remain committed to the ABM treaty," the White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. "We continue to discuss, with the Russians, any steps that may need to be taken or any amendments that may need to be made as far as any future deployment of the national missile defence system."

But the Defense Secretary, William Cohen, indicated on Wednesday that the US might go further. If the treaty could not be amended, he said, "then we have the option of [citing] our national interest, indicating we would simply pull out of the treaty".

Russia says now that if the US goes down this road, then it will block any further moves on arms limitation. "Any attempts to break out of the ABM treaty are regarded in the Defence Ministry as a violation of strategic stability," Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, head of international co-operation in the ministry, told Interfax news agency.

t Frank Ricciardone, a career diplomat, was yesterday appointed by the US to the new post of special representative for transition in Iraq. He will co- ordinate aid to opposition groups. But yesterday the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which the US said would get assistance, said it did not want any American money.