MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at US policies in Iraq and Iran in a national phone-in broadcast on Thursday, and announced new nuclear weapons for Russia's increasingly powerful armed forces.
Speaking live on national television and radio with Russians from across the vast country, Putin called the US intervention in Iraq a "dead end" and suggested that the US-led invasion was aimed at controlling Iraqi oil fields.
Putin said the United States should set a date for its final pull-out from Iraq to force the war-torn country's leadership to build up its own security forces.
"The Americans say you should not name a date for withdrawal," Putin said.
"I think this should be done because unless it is done the Iraqi leadership feels under a US umbrella and won't rush to build up its own security forces."
"To have an occupation regime there eternally is unacceptable," Putin said.
The Russian president also said that one of the reasons for the US invasion of Iraq was to control the country's vast oil reserves and said "some people" wanted to do the same to Russia.
"Thank God Russia is not Iraq. Russia has the strength and the means to defend itself," Putin said earlier during the question-and-answer session in answer to a previous question about protecting Russia's energy resources.
He told one caller that any outside power dreaming of snatching Russia's own massive oil and gas wealth was indulging in "political erotica."
In a link-up with servicemen at the Plesetsk nuclear missile base, Putin announced that Russia would build another new nuclear submarine next year and was also planning a "completely new" atomic weapon, about which he did not elaborate.
"We have grandiose plans and they are absolutely realistic," Putin said, speaking hours after the military announced the successful test firing of a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile.
Putin then delivered a swipe at Washington's tough stand on Iran, saying that Russia's insistence on negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its Russian-backed nuclear power programme was better than "threats, sanctions or even force."
He called media reports of an assassination plot against him in Iran that surfaced on the eve of his visit Tuesday to Tehran an attempt to "wreck" his visit.
This was Putin's sixth such phone-in during eight years in power.
Putin, 55, has left the world guessing about what he will do after the March election, in which he is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive presidential term.
The former KGB officer who came to power in 2000 repeated Thursday that he will step down, saying "there will be another person here in the Kremlin in 2008."
Putin said the economy was booming, but conceded that the government was so far unable to control inflation of 8.5 percent and rising beyond "the planned parameters."
However, he trumpeted economic growth of 7.7 percent, saying "the results of this year were positive, even better than we expected."
There has been a more than doubling of foreign investment, 13.4 percent increase in incomes, and 5.1 percent increase in pensions, he said, while gold and foreign currency reserves are at record levels.
Putin also claimed credit for a slowdown in the country's catastrophic mortality rate, saying that government benefits to families were having an effect.
No major politician has yet expressed interest in seeking the presidency, while polls indicate the parliamentary election will give Putin's United Russia party an overwhelming majority.
Speculation is mounting that Putin will seek to remain in control even after quitting the presidency, possibly in a newly empowered prime minister's post. Or he may return to the Kremlin for a third term after a break -- something the constitution does not bar.
Later Thursday Putin was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Moscow for talks expected to focus on Iran's Russian-backed nuclear programme. Putin was in Tehran on Tuesday, the first visit to Iran by a Kremlin leader since World War II.