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Before Bush's visit, Czechs torn over U.S. missile defense plans

Before Bush's visit, Czechs torn over U.S. missile defense plans

Big politics rarely play out in little places like Stitov. That is no solace to Vaclav Hudec, whose tiny village is caught in the middle of a national debate over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system here and in neighboring Poland.
Hudec, the mayor, and most of the residents of Stitov _ population 58 _ are bitterly opposed to the idea of hosting a U.S. radar base at the Brdy military zone next door.
So is a wary Russia, and U.S. President George W. Bush will wade into the fray when he visits Prague next week.
Recent polls suggest more than 60 percent of Czechs oppose the missile defense plan, which the United States says would help shield it and Europe if Iran unleashed a rocket attack. Opponents fear it could touch off a new arms race with Russia and make the Czech Republic a target for terrorists.
"I was never into politics, but into the environment and the forests," said Hudec, 47, pointing to the bucolic surroundings of Stitov, nestled in verdant hills southwest of the Czech capital.
But last month, he sent a letter to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Byrd detailing why he and nearly two dozen other mayors do not want a U.S. radar installation on their doorsteps.
"I'm just forced to. I just told myself that our politicians won't help us," Hudec said. "I approached the Democrats. There was no point asking the Republicans, who just have a different view." He has yet to receive a reply.
Protesters plan to gather outside the medieval Prague Castle to show their displeasure when Bush makes a stop Monday and Tuesday en route to the G8 summit in Germany to address a conference on global democracy and security.
"It is more likely that Europe will be hit by an asteroid than Iran would use missiles to attack Europe," said Jan Tamas, a protest organizer. The main Czech opposition parties have demanded a nationwide referendum on the issue.
However, Czech leaders _ who have deployed troops to help support the U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan _ insist the missile defense system makes sense.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek called it "a necessary step which will significantly increase our security and also the security of our European allies and neighbors," and says his government remains receptive to the project.
Even former President Vaclav Havel _ an avowed peacenik who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended communism in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989 _ has brushed off Russia's objections.
"It's our business to have any radar we want to," said Havel, who will meet up with Bush at next week's Prague conference. Havel said Moscow's complaints were akin to the Czech Republic kicking up a fuss if Russia were to place a radar base "somewhere in Siberia."
Earlier this week, after Russia tested a new multiple-warhead, intercontinental ballistic missile, President Vladimir Putin warned that the planned U.S. shield would turn the region into a "powder keg."
Despite repeated U.S. assurances that the system poses no threat to Russia, the Kremlin remains deeply distrustful of any entrenched U.S. military presence in the Czech Republic or Poland. Both nations, now members of the European Union and NATO, were in the Soviet orbit during the Cold War era.
Support for the U.S. plan also is eroding in Poland, which would host 10 interceptor missiles. The most recent survey suggests just one in four Poles wants the shield, which both countries are still negotiating over.
Yet some say the idea makes them feel safer _ and not just from Iran, which the U.S. has accused of trying to covertly make nuclear weapons.
"Finally we would have some security in the face of Russia," said Maciej Burczak, 64, who owns a construction company. "Maybe the shield is aimed against missiles from Iran, but it would make Poland safer from a threat from Russia."
Hudec said he is ready to leave his beloved Stitov, perched on the edge of the sprawling military zone used mostly by the Czech army for artillery training, if efforts to stop the radar project fail.
"I'd certainly go" and others will follow, he declared, citing doubts about alleged health risks he said officials were unable to dispel and the unsettling fear that terrorists might respond with an attack.
Josef Boula, a 66-year-old retiree from the nearby village of Skorice, said the Americans should put the radar on their own territory.
"We don't want it here," Boula said resolutely.
"Bush should focus on his own country. He's got many problems to deal with at home," he said. "We're a NATO member and need nobody else to take care of our security."
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Associated Press Writers Ryan Lucas in Warsaw, Poland, and William J. Kole in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-26 11:35 GMT+08:00