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Bush says he can't prove Iran sent weapons to Iraq

By Terence Hunt
AP White House Correspondent

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.

The House is expected to vote Friday on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's decision to send additional troops to Iraq.

Bush was holding his 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 percent.

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."

Three senior U.S. military officials, at a weekend briefing in Baghdad, said the highest levels of the Iranian government had ordered lethal roadside bombs smuggled into Iraq. They based their claim on the belief the weapons are moving into Iraq through 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 and that the Quds Force was part of the Iranian government.

Pressed on the subject, Bush 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 the attacks.

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. officials.

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.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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