WASHINGTON Poland would like to host a major NATO military installation on its soil as part of a deeper security relationship with the United States, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told Reuters on Thursday.
Sikorski is in Washington to discuss with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others the conditions under which Poland would agree to host a defensive missile shield, a U.S. proposal which has angered Moscow, Poland's eastern neighbor.
"We've been a NATO member since '99, but we don't have any hard NATO facilities on our territory," he said in the interview with Reuters. "The only thing we have is a conference center. And we are a border country of NATO."
The Bush administration wants to locate 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic under a $3.5 billion plan to defend Europe and the United States against a possible missile attack from Iran.
Sikorski says Poland feels no direct threat from Iran, but takes seriously U.S. concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology.
But he is worried by the saber-rattling from Moscow about the missile shield and is seeking a deeper security relationship with the United States, saying any deal to base the missile shield in Poland must make Warsaw more secure.
Poland's Defense Minister Bogdan Klich, who visited Washington earlier this month, has already suggested that Washington should bolster Polish air defenses with new short- and medium-range systems like the Patriot missile in exchange for Warsaw's missile shield cooperation.
Sikorski on Thursday raised the prospect of a NATO base in Poland as another item on Poland's wish list, while adding that "We're not wedded to any particular technical solution."
"We believe that NATO infrastructure, defense infrastructure, should be more or less evenly spread over its territory. And at the moment it certainly is not," Sikorski told Reuters.
When it was suggested that the U.S.-proposed missile shield would constitute a military installation, Sikorski responded: "It's proposed in a very remote part of Poland, and, it would be, as you know, quite small. It wouldn't be like the kinds of bases that are in Britain, or Germany, or Italy or Turkey."
"The prospect of American troops on our soil ... is something that we would welcome."
Poland is the biggest ex-communist member of NATO and has been an important ally for the United States following the September 11 attacks, sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. missile shield plan has angered Moscow, which says such a system close to its borders would pose a threat to Russian national security. Russia has also warned it will take unspecified "tangible" measures if construction begins on the missile system's infrastructure.
Washington insists the proposed missile shield poses no threat to Moscow.
Sikorski arrived on Wednesday for a round of meetings and has already seen national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Vice President Dick Cheney. He meets Rice on Friday.
Earlier on Thursday, he used the word "blackmail" to describe the pressure Poland has been under to ditch the plan.
"As many of you know, Poland has come under political pressure, and has even been blackmailed by some of our neighbors, who fiercely oppose this project," Sikorski said at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
The head of the new center-right Polish government, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is expected to visit Washington next month. Sikorski said, however, that it's "up to the United States" how quickly a deal is reached on the missile shield.
In any case he believed it would be difficult to start building a shield in Poland this year, given a condition passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress that the Polish parliament ratify the agreement before the project goes ahead.
Sikorski said he had learned of that condition on Thursday in a visit with California Democrat Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who chairs the House of Representatives strategic forces subcommittee. "That puts an additional time constraint. We would really have to rush now, to get this thing done this year."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)