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Democracy spreading across Middle East, Bush says

WASHINGTON—President Bush on Tuesday kept pressure on Syria, demanding anew that it withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and telling the Damascus government and Iran to stop meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a speech on terrorism that was more a "State of the Middle East" address, Bush said democracy was expanding in the region—from Baghdad to Beirut to Riyadh—making it less of a recruiting ground for terrorists bent on attacking the United States.

"Across the Middle East, a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful direction," the president said at the National Defense University. "By now it should be clear that authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future; it is the last gasp of a discredited past."

Some Middle East analysts, while acknowledging that change is clearly under way in the region, suggest that Bush is overreaching about its scope—and underestimating the danger that events could spin out of control.

"What bothers me about this speech is the euphoria, that `Golly, all this is going to be great,'" said former State Department official David Mack, the vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington nonprofit that tends to be sympathetic to Arab views. "It's well to be careful about what you wish for, because you may get it—and it may come back to haunt you later."

Many human rights advocates celebrated the shah of Iran's overthrow in 1979, Mack noted, only to see a hard-line Islamic theocracy replace him. While the change in Iran may prove positive in the long term, "it's turning out to be a very, very long term," he said.

Bush said Tuesday that the evidence of change was undeniable and its impact significant. He praised election reforms in Saudi Arabia and Egypt as "small but welcome steps" and gently prodded them to do more to ensure free and unfettered access to the elective process for opposition parties, political candidates, the news media and women.

He held out recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories as examples of victory over authoritarian rule.

"Our duty is clear," the president said. "For the sake of our long-term security, all free nations must stand with the forces of democracy and justice that have begun to transform the Middle East."

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a specialist in Arab political reform, said the speech was Bush's most detailed description to date of the importance of democratization in the Middle East and past obstacles to such change.

"I think this is a much more specific take," said Wittes, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy-research center. The president's nudge to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was particularly significant, she said, because it made clear that Mubarak's bland pledge last month of multi-candidate presidential elections wasn't enough.

Bush's speech marked a return to one of the more popular themes of his re-election campaign. Shortly after the election, the president turned his attention to revamping the Social Security system, which is being met with public skepticism. Polls indicate that more than half of Americans oppose a drastic change in Social Security. But Bush's numbers remain strong when he talks about combating terrorism.

He reiterated his demand that Syria end its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon or face "becoming even more isolated from the world."

"All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections, for those elections to be free and fair," he said.

While the president praised Lebanese who've demanded "a free and independent nation" without Syrian interference, he didn't mention the hundreds of thousands of other Lebanese who participated in a noisy pro-Syrian protest in Beirut on Tuesday organized by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, which is virulently anti-American, is one of the most powerful political forces in Lebanon.

On the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Bush accused Syria and Iran of having financial links to the terrorists responsible for a fatal attack in Tel Aviv, Israel, last month.

"Syria, as well as Iran, has a long history of supporting terrorist groups determined to sow division and chaos in the Middle East, and there is every possibility they will try this strategy again," the president said. "The time has come for Syria and Iran to stop using murder as a tool of policy, and to end all support for terrorism."

Bush urged Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, which he said threatened to destabilize the region. Germany, France and Great Britain are negotiating with the Iranian government to halt its nuclear program.

"The Iranian regime should listen to the concerns of the world, and listen to the voice of the Iranian people, who long for their liberty and want their country to be a respected member of the international community," the president said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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