Updated: 01:24 AM EST
Bush Criticizes Syria, Iran As Unstable
Assassination in Lebanon Puts Pressure on Damascus
By JENNIFER LOVEN, AP
WASHINGTON (Feb. 18) - President Bush criticized Syria and Iran on Thursday as destabilizing forces in the Middle East but stopped short of threatening new U.S. action against either. Expressing sympathy with Israeli worries about a nuclear-armed Iran, the president said America would protect its ally.
Bush said Syria was "out of step'' with progress being made in the Mideast. The president cited the 15,000 troops that Syria has in Lebanon and accused Syria of harboring terrorist groups and assisting Iraqi insurgents.
He did not assert involvement by Syria, as many suspect, in the assassination this week of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
"I'm going to withhold judgment until we find out what the facts are,'' Bush said at a news conference where he announced the appointment of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as director of national intelligence.
Going over one global hot spot after another, the president repeatedly chose the language of negotiation over intimidation.
He did say that "some of the behavior in the Middle East is unacceptable'' - a reference to Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and support by Iran and Syria of terrorist organizations. But Bush emphasized diplomatic solutions. "There's a lot of progress that can be made,'' he said.
Bush dodged several questions about potential new penalties against Syria. "The idea is to continue to work with the world to remind Syria it's not in their interest to be isolated,'' he said.
His approach contrasted sharply with that recommended by a bipartisan group of 11 senators, who urged Bush to expand on trade penalties and to "take strong action'' against Syria. "Neither the U.S. nor our allies can afford to let Syria off the hook,'' the lawmakers said in a letter Thursday.
Bush reaffirmed that Iran is not now in danger of a U.S. attack, despite the administration's belief that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons; Iran denies that charge. "There's more diplomacy, in my judgment, to be done,'' the president said.
Asked about his level of concern that Israel might attack Iran to prevent its Tehran from acquiring nuclear arms, Bush responded with an assurance to Israel of U.S. protection.
"If I was the leader of Israel and I'd listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well,'' he said. "We will support Israel if her security is threatened.''
Turning to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, Bush said diplomacy involving countries in the region is the right strategy. "Now is the time for us to work with friends and allies who have agreed to be part of the process to determine what we're jointly going to do about it,'' he said.
On his chief domestic priority, Bush said Congress must act immediately to prevent Social Security from going bankrupt in several decades. "The longer we wait, the more difficult the solution becomes,'' he said.
As part of any overhaul, Bush wants to see workers younger than 55 have the chance to divert part of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. He is facing resistance from most Democrats and even some Republicans.
"We look forward to working with Congress to come up with ways to make sure that the personal accounts, if Congress so chooses, and I hope they do, can be financed,'' he said.
The president, in the 30-minute session with reporters, also previewed his trip next week to Europe. He said he would use the meetings to discuss Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But he declined to support the European tactic of offering Iran technological, financial and political support in return for its scrapping of its uranium enrichment program.
He offered an overture to allies, promising to try to rebuild trans-Atlantic trust damaged by the war in Iraq by also focusing during his travels on topics of importance to Europeans, including global hunger, disease and climate change.
"Differences, at times, frankly, caused us to talk past each other,'' Bush said. "I want to make sure the Europeans understand I know that, and that as we move beyond the differences of the past, that we can work a lot together to achieve big objectives.''
The news conference was dominated by talk of the administration's stance toward Syria in the wake of the bombing Monday in Beirut that killed Hariri and 16 others.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the bombing, and Bush said curtly: "The relationship is not moving forward.''
The president endorsed an international investigation into the assassination and said he hoped it soon would identify those responsible.
In Damascus, officials with the Syrian foreign and information ministries could not be reached for comment Thursday evening. A Syrian legislator, Suleiman Haddad, said Bush's charges against Syria are unfounded.
"We know and Bush deep down knows that Syria has nothing to do with'' all these accusations, he said.
02/18/05 00:28 EST
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