WASHINGTON - Challenged on
the accuracy of U.S. intelligence, President Bush said Wednesday there is no
doubt the Iranian government is providing armor-piercing weapons to kill
American soldiers in Iraq. But he backed away from claims the top echelon of
Iran's government was responsible.
Bush, at a news conference, also said he would fight any attempt by the
Democratic-controlled Congress to cut off money for the war. "They need to fund
our troops and the need to make sure we have the flexibility necessary to get
the job done," he said.
The House is expected to vote Friday on a nonbinding resolution opposing
Bush's decision to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.
The meeting with reporters in the East Room was Bush's first news conference
since Dec. 20 and the first since he announced the troop buildup in Iraq. The
four-year-old war hangs heavily on his presidency, and Bush's approval rating in
an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in February matched an all-time low of 32
Iran was a dominant theme of reporters' questions because of conflicting
statements about U.S. intelligence in Iran and recurring speculation that Bush
is looking for an excuse to attack the Islamic republic, which is believed by
Washington and its allies to be seeking nuclear weapons.
Defending U.S. intelligence that has pinpointed Iran as a hostile arms
supplier in Iraq, Bush said, "Does this mean you're trying to have a pretext for
war? No. It means I'm trying to protect our troops."
There have been mixed signals in the administration about Iran's involvement
in supplying Shiite groups in Iraq with a particularly lethal type of roadside
bombs known as explosively formed penetrators.
Three senior U.S. military officials, at a weekend briefing in Baghdad, said
the highest levels of the Iranian government had ordered the weapons smuggled
into Iraq. They based their claim on the belief the weapons are moving into Iraq
through the Iran's Revolutionary Guards elite Quds Force.
But Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said later he was
not ready to conclude that Iran's top leaders were behind the attacks. Some
lawmakers also have questioned the administration's statements.
Wading into the debate, Bush said the Quds Force was instrumental in
supplying the weapons ¡ª "we know that," he said ¡ª and that the Quds Force was
part of the Iranian government. "That's a known," he said. "What we don't know
is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what
Pressed again on the subject, Bush displayed some irritation and said,
"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." Ahmadinejad has denied Iran was behind
Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee emerged from a classified
briefing Wednesday saying they wanted more information about Iran. The committee
chairman, Sen. Carl Levin said it was unclear to him precisely what the
administration knows about the Tehran government's ties to the weapons found in
"There seems to be some disarray," said Levin, D-Mich. He said he eventually
hopes to see some declassified information on the subject.
Bush came into the news conference after receiving a briefing from Baghdad by
Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Bush said he talked with Petraeus about coordination between Iraqi and
coalition forces, and that while it seemed to be good, more work was needed on
developing an efficient command-and-control structure.
Bush responded carefully when asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's
accusations Saturday that the United States was undermining global security and
provoking a nuclear arms race. The depth of Putin's criticism surprised U.S.
Bush said Putin was "the same strong-willed person" he has known since 2001
and there is a "complicated relationship" between Washington and Moscow.
On other matters, Bush said:
_The agreement announced Tuesday to shut down North Korea's nuclear program
in exchange for fuel assistance was "a good first step." He said he strongly
disagreed with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton that it was a bad deal.
_He will not comment on the 2008 presidential race. "I will resist all
temptation to become the pundit-in-chief."
_He will not comment on whether he authorized members of his administration
to leak the identity of Valerie Plame, a one-time CIA officer whose husband,
former ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the administration's case for the
Iraq war. Similarly, Bush refused to say whether he might pardon I. Lewis
"Scooter Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby is on trial
on charges of lying and obstructing the investigation into the Plame's identity.