Czech upper house approves missile shield

PRAGUE Thu Nov 27, 2008 2:33pm EST

Demonstrators are seen with placards as they walk past the Czech Parliament in Prague October 29, 2008. The placards read (2nd L to R) ''respect your voters'', ''we want to decide'' and ''referendum = democracy''. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Demonstrators are seen with placards as they walk past the Czech Parliament in Prague October 29, 2008. The placards read (2nd L to R) ''respect your voters'', ''we want to decide'' and ''referendum = democracy''.

Credit: Reuters/David W Cerny

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - The upper house of the Czech parliament backed a plan on Thursday to build a U.S. missile defense shield base in the central European country, but it faces tough scrutiny in the lower chamber.

Washington plans to build a radar in the Czech Republic and place 10 interceptor rockets in Poland as a part of its plan to protect the United States and its allies from missiles that could be fired from countries such as Iran.

The plan must still be cleared by the Czech lower house, where the government lacks a majority and the opposition is against the agreement.

"If I did not believe in the chances (that it gets approved in the lower house), I would not fight for it so much," Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told Reuters after the vote.

A final vote in the lower house is not expected at least until after the new U.S. administration takes power in January.

"At this point it is unlikely (to get approved in the lower house) but it would be more likely if ... Obama made some decision saying: we are going ahead with this ... Then a lot of these (opposition) left of center deputies could be swayed," said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst at New York University in Prague.

The project has angered Russia, the former master of central Europe in Soviet times, which sees is as a threat to its security and warned it would deploy its own missiles in the western enclave of Kaliningrad.

The spat, along with the Russian intervention in Georgia in August, has become one of the main factors behind a chill in U.S.-Russia relations, which have cooled to post-Cold War lows.

U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has said he backed the missile defense project in general but it should be "pragmatic and cost-effective" and should not divert resources from other priorities until it is proven that it works.

His likely Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton, has criticized what she called was the Bush administration's focus on "expensive and unproven missile defense technology."

Czech and Polish leaders have said they expected the new administration to go ahead with the plan.

The Polish parliament is expected to vote on the plan next year.

TRADE-OFF FOR LISBON

The missile defense project has also divided the Czech political scene and alienated the majority of the central European nation of 10.4 million, resentful of any foreign military presence -- even the less than 200-strong, allied U.S. contingent that would run the radar -- since a Soviet-led 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The center-right Czech government, irritated by Russia's increasingly tough foreign policy, sees the missile defense project as a key security guarantee on the top of its membership in the NATO alliance.

The leftist opposition Social Democrats are against the shield, saying it is unnecessary and should not be built on the basis of a bilateral agreement with the United States rather than a multi-national arrangement. NATO has backed the project at a summit in Bucharest earlier this year.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has said some in his right-wing Civic Democrat Party may hold up an unrelated vote on the EU's Lisbon Treaty, backed by the opposition, unless the opposition allows the radar treaties go through.

The government only has 96 votes in the 200-seat lower house, and needs the votes of independents and probably also some Social Democrats for the radar treaties to be approved.

Social Democrat chief Jiri Paroubek -- who had earlier said he had no problem with the missile defense deal but changed his position in light of strong public opposition -- has so far refused any arrangement allowing the radar treaties to go through.

(Additional reporting by Jason Hovet; Writing by Jan Lopatka and Jana Mlcochova; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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