The Czech Republic has agreed in principle to host a U.S. radar facility that will be part of a planned European missile shield, and significant progress has been made on negotiations to place interceptor missiles in Poland, U.S. and European government officials said here March 31


The so-called European missile defense site is intended to protect the United States and its European allies against missiles launched from Iran.
The plan has drawn strong criticism and threats from the Russian government, which sees the proposed site as a threat to its national security.


If both agreements can be finalized this year, site construction can begin in late 2009 and 10
interceptors can be fully installed by 2013, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency says.


John Rood, the U.S. State Department’s undersecretary for arms control and international security
, said the Czech agreement
likely will be secured
very soon and a Polish deal is not far behind.


“We stand on the cusp of completing these negotiations [with the Czech Republic], and I’m hopeful with a burst of action over the next few days we can complete those discussions,” Rood
said in a speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ 6th annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference
“I am also optimistic we can successfully complete negotiations with Poland. Although there are still some important issues to be resolved in that negotiation, I don’t see any insurmountable obstacles.”

In anticipation that agreements ultimately would be reached, the
State Department in
May 2007 began
discussions with Poland and the Czech Republic on
a wide variety of issues associated with placing U.S. military facilities in those countries
, Rood said.
How the facilities will operate,
command and control arrangements, and the integration of U.S. and European forces
among the issues being
hammered out, Rood said.


Poland and the Czech Republic have understandable concerns about
sovereignty, but
good progress has been made on a variety of issues, Rood said.

Petr Kolar, the Czech Republic’s U.S. ambassador,
also expressed confidence
the deal would be completed.

“The main agreement is going t


o be signed pretty soon. If I am correct we are now only looking for the best place to sign it, the best people to sign it, and the best occasion,” Kolar said. “There was some small issue related to the environment, and it’s probably going to be solved if it’s not solved already.”


Kolar stressed the importance of the Czech Republic’s strategic relationship with the United States, calling America
the Czechs’ most important ally. He said many NATO allies had serious concerns about the missile shield being the start of a new Cold War, but those concerns largely have evaporated
over the past year.


“It’s a defensive system, and that’s why the Czech Republic is taking our negotiations with the United States very seriously,” Kolar said. “We want to defend ourselves; we don’t want to attack anyone.”


Kolar said 70 percent of the Czech people are opposed to hosting the radar site because they are not convinced it is needed. But if the government can work to better explain the issues, he said, the public will
nderstand the site is the best way forward for the nation’s security.


Compounding the public’s uncertainty are political opposition leaders who do not believe Iran is a real threat, he said.


“They call [Iran] a paper tiger,” Kolar said. “The problem is some of the documents that are proving the Iran threats are real are classified. So it’s hard to provide this information to opposition leaders who are not entitled to read classified documents.”


Wojceiech Fiera, Poland’s U.S. ambassador, said the missile shield offers a unique opportunity to further develop his country’s
strategic partnership with the United States.


“Polish-U.S. cooperation should make our security mutually dependent for decades to come, and this is why, for Poland, it is so important,” Fiera said.


Rood also was upbeat about the prospects for
allaying Russian concerns over the missile shield
The United States has offered Russia
“far-reaching proposals”
to cooperate on missile defense, but Moscow has
not responded positively, he said. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called ideas put forth by the United States useful, serious and important, Rood noted


“While it would be, I think, unrealistic for Russia to endorse the U.S. missile defense efforts, we are hopeful that Russia’s concerns will be mitigated or largely allayed and we can put this area of dispute behind us,” Rood said.