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Iranian president criticizes U.S. foreign policy in letter to Bush

WASHINGTON—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush asks how Bush as a Christian can justify attacking Iraq, holding prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay and at secret detention centers overseas.

The letter was made available on Web sites on Tuesday, after the White House received it on Monday. In it, Ahmadinejad also criticized U.S. support for Israel and, in the only reference to his country's nuclear program, asked why scientific advances in the region are portrayed as threats to Israel.

"Is not scientific R&D (research and development) one of the basic rights of nations?" he wrote.

The United States and its allies are trying to isolate Iran in an attempt to persuade it to abandon a nuclear program that the Tehran government says is to provide energy for the country. The White House contends that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Although he's been openly hostile toward the United States and Israel, the Iranian president opens his letter to Bush with a conversational tone, saying he wants to raise some "contradictions and questions, in hopes that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them."

The letter is full of quotes from the Quran and references to Jesus Christ, whom Ahmadinejad calls the "Messenger of peace and forgiveness." He notes in the letter that Muslims revere Christ as a great prophet.

Some Middle East experts said the eight-page letter, the first to an American president from an Iranian one since the two countries broke relations in 1979, may contain some overtures to the U.S.

"You can find snippets, questions and comments that, if you choose to, could lead to an opening," said John Calabrese, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "It's possible (Iran) is looking for a compromise—a way to pursue the scientific and research operations of its programs."

Other experts, however, said that Ahmadinejad might be striking a reasonable pose in an effort to buy more time for Iran's weapons program, divide America from its European allies and exploit Bush's falling poll numbers.

Ahmadinejad's letter is heavy on religious themes. He asserts that Western democracy has failed, and that the world is turning to religion instead.

He questions how Bush, as a Christian, could invade Iraq, detain prisoners without due process and back an Israeli government that he charges "does not show mercy, even to kids" and "that announces beforehand its list and plans to assassinate Palestinian figures and keeps thousands of Palestinians in prison."

"My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?" Ahmadinejad asked. "Today there are hundreds of millions of Christians, hundreds of millions of Muslims and millions of people who follow the teachings of Moses (PBUH) (peace be upon him). All divine religions share and respect one word and that is `monotheism' or belief in a single God and no other in the world."

Administration officials dismissed the letter on Monday, and White House officials declined to comment on the specifics of it on Tuesday. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Tuesday said the letter was an effort by the Iranian leader to change the subject rather than deal with the nuclear issue.

"It's not an issue of whether we respond. It's an issue of whether the regime will respond to the demands of the international community," he said. "The international community is concerned about the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian program."

Ahmadinejad takes Bush to task on Iraq, questioning whether toppling Saddam Hussein was worth the money and the lives that the war has cost.

But he notes that while United States and coalition forces have found no weapons of mass destruction, Saddam was "a murderous dictator" and that "people of the region are happy" that he's no longer in power.

Ahmadinejad also raised issues beyond the Middle East: meddling in Latin American politics and wealthy nations holding back development in Africa.

He called the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks a "horrendous incident" and said that the Iranian government immediately "declared its disgust with the perpetrators" and offered sympathy to the families of those killed. But he also asked how the attacks could have been "planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services—or their extensive infiltration."

"Of course this is just an educated guess," Ahmadinejad wrote.

The letter is posted on the Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations at http://www.cfr.org or go directly to http://www.cfr.org/publication/10633/

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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