President Bush said today he has no doubt that Iran has supplied weapons used against U.S. forces in Iraq, but he stressed that he does not know whether the top leadership in Iran ordered the activity and he denied that he is using the issue as a "pretext" for war against Iran.
In his first news conference of the new year, Bush also sought to walk a fine line on a House resolution that expresses disapproval of his plan to augment U.S. forces in Iraq. He said the Democratic resolution, which is scheduled to come to a vote Friday after three days of debate, prejudges a Baghdad security plan that the troop surge is aimed at bolstering. But he stopped short of the harsher criticism leveled by fellow Republicans, and he said the key issue is the continuation of congressional funding for U.S. troops deployed in Iraq.
Bush said he received his first briefing this morning from Baghdad by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus in his new capacity as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and was told that the Baghdad security plan "is beginning to take shape." Bush praised the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for "following through on its commitments" to deploy three additional Iraqi army brigades in the capital and to meet other benchmarks.
The security operation for Baghdad "is going to take time, and there will be violence," Bush warned. He acknowledged that the violence is "disturbing" to Americans and Iraqis, but added, "If you think the violence is bad now, imagine what it would look like if we don't help them secure the city."
Bush said: "I fully recognize we're not going to be able to stop all suicide bombers. I know that. But we can . . . help the Iraqis secure that capital so the people have a sense of normalcy."
The president's comments came as lawmakers in the House continued debating a nonbinding resolution that disapproves of his plan to increase the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by 21,500 to help secure Baghdad and reinforce the volatile western Iraqi province of Anbar. Republicans yesterday denounced the resolution as "meaningless," while also asserting that it was a first step toward "abandoning" Iraq and cutting off funding for U.S. troops.
Bush said the resolution "opposes our new plan in Iraq before it has a chance to work," and he charged that the measure's proponents "are prejudging the outcome" of the operation. Lawmakers "have every right to express their opinion, and it is a nonbinding resolution," he said. Soon, however, Congress will vote on a binding bill to provide emergency funding for U.S. troops, and he cautioned: "Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to provide them with the support they need to do their mission. We have a responsibility, all of us here in Washington, to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources and the flexibility they need to prevail."
He was pressed repeatedly during the nearly hour-long news conference to explain an apparent contradiction between U.S. military briefers in Baghdad and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, over Iranian government involvement in the purported supply of weapons, including high-powered explosives, that have been used against U.S. forces in deadly roadside bombings in Iraq. In a weekend briefing, reporters in Baghdad were told that the "highest levels" of the Iranian government had ordered the smuggling of the weapons into Iraq. But Pace said later it was not clear "that the Iranian government per se, for sure, is directly involved in doing this."
Bush said the Quds Force, a component of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, has been "instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to networks inside of Iraq" and that the Quds Force "is a part of the Iranian government."
He added, "What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders in Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did." He then asked, "What's worse? That the government knew or that the government didn't know?"
He said in reply to a subsequent question, "There are weapons in Iraq that are harming U.S. troops" because of smuggling by the Quds Force. "Whether [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there. And I intend to do something about it. And I've asked our commanders to do something about it. And we're going to protect our troops."
Bush cut off a follow-up question, asserting, "There's no contradiction that the weapons are there and they were provided by the Quds Force."
Disclosing this does not mean that he is "trying to have a pretext for war" against Iran, Bush said. "This means I'm trying to protect our troops." He repeated his previous warnings that U.S. forces "will deal with" networks and agents involved in smuggling Iranian weapons into Iraq. U.S. officials have vowed to carry out such actions inside Iraq's borders.
"And to say it is provoking Iran is just a wrong way to characterize the commander in chief's decision to do what is necessary to protect our soldiers in harm's way," Bush said. The claim that "somehow we're manufacturing the idea that the Iranians are providing IEDs is preposterous," he said.
In an opening statement, Bush welcomed yesterday's tentative agreement by North Korea to shut down its nuclear program in exchange for oil, and he rejected criticism by his former ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, who called it "a bad, disappointing deal" whose only saving grace was that "it will probably fall apart."
"I strongly disagree -- strongly disagree with his assessment," Bush said, calling it "flat wrong." But he added, "Now, those who say the North Koreans have got to prove themselves by actually following through on the deal are right, and I'm one." He said the agreement represents "good progress" and "a good first step."
In the accord, negotiated at six-party talks in Beijing, "North Korea agreed to specific actions that will bring us closer to a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons," Bush said.
On domestic issues, Bush refused to answer questions about the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who is fighting federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the leak of a CIA agent's identity. Reporters who have testified at the trial in Washington have identified three other administration officials besides Libby who they said mentioned to them the name of Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA on issues of weapons of mass destruction.
The prosecutor in the case has said the administration was engaged in an effort to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had publicly accused the White House of twisting intelligence about Iraq to justify the March 2003 U.S. invasion.
Asked whether he authorized any of the three to disclose Plame's identity, Bush said, "I'm not going to talk about any of it." He repeated that answer when asked if he might pardon anyone implicated in the case.
Bush also declined to discuss anything related to the 2008 election to choose his successor.
"I will resist all temptation to become the pundit-in-chief," he said.