KUWAIT CITY — President Bush, after meeting with the top two U.S. officials in Iraq and U.S. troops here Saturday, lauded progress in Iraq and again lashed out at Iran.
While his Mideast trip is aimed mainly at promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis, the president also seems to be drumming up support in the region against Iran, blamed by his administration for fomenting unrest in Iraq and, at least until recently, for dabbling in nuclear weapons.
"Iran's role in fomenting violence has been exposed," Bush said at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait's biggest U.S. troop base. "Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, who briefed the president on Iraq along with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, also spoke out against Iranian intervention.
"Iran's senior-most leaders promised Iraq's that they would stop funding, arming, training and directing of militia extremists and other elements in Iraq that were creating security challenges," Petraeus said. "We are waiting, frankly, to see that carried out."
While Petraeus, who'd said recently that attacks with weapons believed to be from Iraq were down, raised a renewed worry Saturday. Over the past 10 days, he said, blasts involving explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, an armor piercing roadside bomb believed to be imported from Iran, have increased sharply.
In a meeting with ten female Kuwaiti political activists, intellectuals and politicians, Bush also brought up Iran, according to Rula Dashti a female activist who attended. The president, Dashti reported, said that while the United States was pursuing all diplomatic means to block any nuclear weapons program in Iran, all options were still on the table.
A recent report by U.S. intelligence agencies says Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has yet to restart it. Kuwaiti newspapers said its leadership will, along with other Arab leaders, urge against a strike against Iran.
Bush's appraisal of Iraq was far more upbeat.
"Iraq is now a different place from one year ago," he said. "Much hard work remains, but levels of violence are significantly reduced.
"Hope is returning to Baghdad, and hope is returning to towns and villages throughout the country," he said.
The president singled out for praise a U.S. program that pays mostly Sunni volunteers $300 a month to protect their neighborhoods and hold al Qaida at bay. The program is known as Concerned Local Citizens or Awakening groups. They now number more than 80,000 people, mostly armed.
"Moderates are turning on those who espouse violence," Bush said of them. "Iraqis are slowly taking control of their country."
Awakening groups are also raising concern in the Shiite-led government, however, over their potential to turn on it. Instead, Bagdad is trying to absorb Awakening forces into civil service jobs and the security forces.
Bush said that he has no plans to reduce troops faster than the five-brigade withdrawal planned by July. That would bring the troop level to the pre-surge level of 130,000.
Bush offered some coaxing support to Iraqi leaders Saturday shortly before Iraq's parliament passed a long-awaited, U.S.-backed law that lets former Baath Party members, who are mostly Sunnis, participate in the Shiite-dominated government.
Tens of thousands had been banned from it, and from pensions that many now stand to receive, by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
"I'm not making excuses for a government," Bush said of the leadership in Iraq, "but to go from a tyranny to a democracy is virtually impossible.
"Have they done enough? No... Our message is very clear: It's in your interest that you pass good law."
Special Correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.