White House

Bush sends ambiguous signals about his intentions on Iran

WASHINGTON—President Bush on Wednesday accused Iran of contributing to American deaths in Iraq and said, "I intend to do something about it." But he insisted that he isn't looking for another war in the Middle East.

Bush also acknowledged that he doesn't know whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or other top Iranian officials have authorized the shipment of roadside bombs to Iraq. The sophisticated munitions, known as "explosively formed penetrators," are one of the deadliest weapons that Iraqi insurgents use.

Bush outlined the circumstantial evidence against Iran at a White House news conference dominated by questions on Iraq. He defended his handling of the war as about a dozen House Republicans spoke out against his plan for more troops.

The president's recent focus on Iranian involvement in Iraq has raised new concerns that the Iraq conflict could spread.

"When we find the networks that are enabling these weapons to end up in Iraq, we will deal with them. If we find agents who are moving these devices into Iraq, we will deal with them," Bush said. "We're going to do something about it, pure and simple."

U.S. officials have been trying for days to tamp down fears of war with Iran even as they pressure Tehran to behave, but Bush's comments left some ambiguity about his intentions. Although he said he favors a peaceful resolution and isn't trying to provoke Iran, he didn't rule out military action.

He also seemed to shrug off the lack of evidence tying top Iranian officials to the weapons shipments. Bush said the munitions were sent to Iraq by the Quds Force, an elite unit with close ties to the top levels of the Iranian government.

"What's worse, that the government knew or that the government didn't know?" Bush asked. "Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Quds Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we know that they're there."

Bush held his first news conference of the year as lawmakers in the House of Representatives debated a nonbinding resolution denouncing his plans to send more troops to Iraq. The president said lawmakers "have every right" to criticize his strategy as long as they continue to fund it.

Backers of the resolution opposing the troop increase predict that roughly two dozen House Republicans will support the measure when it comes to a vote on Friday. Virtually all Democrats support it, ensuring its passage.

"Interjecting more young American troops into the crosshairs of an Iraqi civil war is simply not the right approach," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., took issue with suggestions that lawmakers who oppose Bush favor a cut-and-run strategy.

"If we had removed Saddam (Hussein), which most Iraqis wanted, and then withdrew four or five weeks later, or even four or five months later, that would have constituted cutting and running. But we've been there four years. The time has come, in my opinion, for the baton to be handed to the Iraqis."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., called the escalation plan "the status quo on steroids."

With the resolution headed for passage, Bush focused his attention on the next flash point—his request for another $174 billion to fund the war through 2008. The additional funding would push the war's total cost to more than $500 billion.

Congress will consider the next installment for Iraq next month when it takes up Bush's request for $99.6 billion in emergency funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of the Iraq money is in the president's proposed 2008 budget, which probably won't face votes until summer.

While Bush seemed resigned to the likelihood of a rhetorical rebuke from the House, he warned against any effort to restrict war funding. Congressional Democrats, under pressure from anti-war activists to stand up to the White House, have said that funding restrictions could be the next step.

"They have every right to express their opinion. ... I think you can be against my decision and support the troops, absolutely. But the proof will be whether or not you provide them the money necessary," Bush said.

On another topic, Bush hailed the new agreement with North Korea as a vital step toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program. The Tuesday agreement calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs in return for economic assistance.

Turning to domestic politics, Bush said he is "intrigued" by the 2008 presidential campaign, but he issued a blanket "no comment" on the candidates vying to succeed him.

"I'd just like to establish some ground rules here with those of you who are stuck following me for the next little less than two years: I will resist all temptation to become the pundit-in-chief," he said.

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