By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007
President Bush bluntly accused Iranian agents yesterday of providing sophisticated explosives to kill U.S. troops in Iraq but said he did not know whether they were acting on orders of the Islamic republic's leaders and denied using the allegations as a pretext to go to war with Tehran.
As the House entered its second day of debate over the Iraq war, Bush tried to quiet talk that he is heading down the same road with Iran that he did with its neighbor four years ago. At his first news conference since announcing that he will send more troops to Iraq, Bush said he sees fresh progress in Baghdad and warned Congress not to cut off funding or set timetables for withdrawal.
The president spent much of the hour-long televised session in the East Room addressing skepticism about his government's assertions regarding Iran and fears of a widening regional conflict. "The idea that somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing [explosives] is preposterous," Bush said. Repeating a reporter's question, he added: "Does this mean you're trying to have a pretext for war? No. It means I'm trying to protect our troops."
Bush rejected suggestions that his administration has provided conflicting accounts of the Iranian leadership's involvement in arming Iraqi extremists. On Sunday, U.S. military officials briefing reporters in Baghdad on the condition of anonymity said that the "highest levels" of Iran's government are involved, but Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later said he would not say the Iranian government is complicit.
"There's no contradiction that the weapons are there and they were provided by the Quds Force," an Iranian paramilitary unit, Bush said. He added: "We know that. And we also know that the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did."
The administration has long asserted that Iran has been fomenting trouble in Iraq, but the issue has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as Bush dispatched an additional aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and confirmed orders to capture or kill Iranian agents caught in Iraq. Democrats and other critics have accused Bush of exaggerating the situation to justify new military action.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the early Democratic presidential front-runner, went to the Senate floor after Bush's news conference to insist that he ask Congress for permission before attacking Iran. "It would be a mistake of historical proportion if the administration thought that the 2002 resolution authorizing force against Iraq was a blank check for the use of force against Iran without further congressional authorization," she said.
The president's news conference demonstrated how much the three countries Bush dubbed an "axis of evil" continue to dominate his presidency five years after he coined the term. With the war in Iraq still mired in violence and the confrontation with Iran growing, Bush was able to cite North Korea as a bright spot. U.S. negotiators reached agreement this week in six-party talks with Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear weapons program in exchange for food and energy.
"This is progress," Bush said. "It is a good first step. There's a lot of work to be done to make sure that the commitments made in this agreement become reality, but I believe it's an important step in the right direction."
The deal has come under fire from figures on the left and the right, who complain that it rewards bad behavior and gives away too much without certainty that North Korea will live up to its end. Bush bristled at the criticism, saying: "The assessment made by some that this is not a good deal is just flat wrong."
The Iran issue has inflamed the already emotional debate on the House floor, as lawmakers consider a nonbinding resolution denouncing Bush's decision to order 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq. The president had largely stayed out of that debate in recognition that it seems certain to pass with even some Republican support and that it is only symbolic. But he signaled a willingness, even an eagerness, to fight any attempt to tangibly tie his hands.
"My hope . . . is that this nonbinding resolution doesn't try to turn into a binding policy that prevents our troops from doing that which I have asked them to do," Bush said. A few moments later, he added: "I'm going to make it very clear to the members of Congress, starting now, that they need to fund our troops and they need to make sure we have the flexibility necessary to get the job done."
Bush arrived for his meeting with reporters after receiving a briefing from Gen. David H. Petraeus, who recently took over as the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The president expressed optimism that the Iraqi government is beginning to meet certain benchmarks, noting that it has set aside $10 billion of its own money for reconstruction as promised and is moving toward a distribution deal on oil proceeds and new rules allowing some lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into the government.
He sought to lower expectations for what constitutes success, however, describing his goal as "relative peace" in Iraq, because "if it's like zero car bombings, it never will happen that way." Bush continued to reject the notion that the conflict in Iraq is now a civil war, despite a new U.S. intelligence conclusion that the term "accurately describes key elements" of the strife, though not its entire complexity.
His comments triggered more criticism among Democrats. "This stubborn refusal to face reality has led this administration into blunder after blunder in Iraq and is now behind the president's misguided plan to send American troops into the crossfire," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), urging colleagues to block the troop increase.
The debate over Iraq and the anxiety over Iran have played out against the backdrop of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury trial, where the origins of the war have been revisited. Defense lawyers for Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff rested their case yesterday after weeks of testimony that confirmed that three administration officials other than Libby -- Bush adviser Karl Rove, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer -- leaked the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had become a vocal critic of the handling of Iraq intelligence. Bush once promised to fire anyone who had leaked Plame's name to the media. But he would not say yesterday whether he had authorized any of the three to leak it. "I'm not going to talk about any of it," he said. And he refused to rule out pardoning Libby.
On another recent foreign flash point, Bush offered a gentle response to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last weekend accused him of undermining global peace and provoking a new arms race. Bush declined to reevaluate his 2001 assessment about seeing Putin's soul: "I think the person who I was referring to in 2001 is the same strong-willed person. He is a person with whom I have had agreements and disagreements throughout the course of my presidency and his."