Vol. 5 Num 263 Tue. February 22, 2005  
Front Page

Bush issues war of words to Iran, Syria

US President Bush appealed to Europe yesterday to move beyond animosities over Iraq and join forces in encouraging democratic reforms across the Middle East. He also prodded Russia to reverse a crackdown on political dissent, demanded that Iran end its nuclear ambitions and told Syria to get out of Lebanon.

Bush did not rule out using military force in Iran, saying all options remain on the table. But, addressing widespread concerns in Europe that Iran is the next US target after Iraq, Bush said: "Iran is ... different from Iraq. We're in the early stages of diplomacy."

Bush's speech on a five-day fence-mending trip to Europe was aimed at both US and European audiences. "In a new century, the alliance of America and Europe is the main pillar of our security," he said.

He used the word "alliance" 12 times in his speech to underscore his aim to repair relations frayed by the war in Iraq. But not all his speech was conciliatory.

Bush had pointed criticism for Russia three days ahead of a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia. Referring to Putin's recent steps to consolidate power, rollback democratic reforms and curb press and political freedoms, Bush said:

"We must always remind Russia that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law. The United States should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia."

Bush's speech was delivered in an ornate ballroom of Brussels' Concert Noble hall before an audience of business leaders, academics and diplomats. It was greeted mostly by subdued applause.

He was having a private dinner later Monday with French President Jacques Chirac, one of his harshest critics on Iraq. His trip also included stops in Germany and Slovakia.

Bush urged greater "tangible political, economic and security assistance to the world's newest democracy," Iraq. And he called for European allies to stand by fledgling democracy movements throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East.

He said he recognized that full democracy could take awhile to root. Even in the United States, democracy came slowly, Bush said, pointing out that women and minorities were not treated equally "and that struggle hasn't ended."

Bush had sharp words for Syria, calling on leaders in Damascus to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. As Bush spoke, thousands of opposition supporters in Beirut shouted insults at Syria and demanded the resignation of Lebanon's pro-Syrian government, marking a week since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's most prominent politician.

The United States has withdrawn its ambassador from Syria for consultations to protest a suspected link between the assassination and Syria.

"The Lebanese people have the right to be free, and the United States and Europe share an interest in an independent, democratic Lebanon," Bush said.

On Iran, Bush said the United States was working with European allies Britain, France and Germany on a diplomatic solution to end Iran's nuclear program. His administration, however, has been skeptical of the Europeans' approach to offer Iran economic and political incentives not to develop nuclear arms.

"The results of this approach now depend largely on Iran," Bush said. "The time has arrived for the Iranian regime to listen to the Iranian people and respect their rights and join in the movement toward liberty that is taking place all around them."

And he had pointed advice for two pivotal US allies in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.