Bush urges peaceful end to Iran nuclear crisis

( AFP ) - US President George W. Bush said Thursday that he hoped Iran would bow to mounting global pressure over its atomic program but warned he was "not going to tolerate" a nuclear-armed Tehran.

In a wide-ranging press conference, Bush refused to comment on an Israeli raid inside Syria and declined to confirm reports that North Korea gave nuclear know-how to Damascus, while sternly warning Pyongyang against any such efforts.

The president, in his first public comment on the Blackwater shooting in Iraq, said he was "saddened" because "evidently some innocent lives were lost" and that he would discuss the issue with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week.

Bush also signaled he would raise sluggish Iraqi progress towards national reconciliation, saying "I'm not going to give them a pass," while admitting that key political and security goals will not be met as quickly as hoped.

"Having not achieved them doesn't mean we ought to quit," said Bush, who promised that building democracy in Iraq would dishearten extremists like those who killed an anti-Syrian lawmaker in Beirut on Wednesday.

"Now, I don't know who did that. But I do know it is typical of this war we're fighting in when extremists kill innocent people in order to undermine democracies," Bush said one day after tying Iran and Syria to violence there.

Looking to the 2008 US elections, the unpopular president promised skittish fellow Republicans he would be a "strong asset," and turned aside worries about a possible recession by insisting he was "optimistic" about the US economy despite "unsettling times" in the US housing market amid soaring foreclosures.

After weeks of escalating US rhetoric on Iran and a stark French warning to prepare for a possible war, Bush insisted that "the objective, of course, is to solve this peacefully."

"I am hopeful that we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons program, and do so peacefully. That ought to be the objective of any diplomacy," he said.

"It's imperative that we continue to work in a multilateral fashion to send that message. And one place to do so is at the United Nations," Bush said, one day before French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was due at the White House.

The five UN Security Council permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany were due to debate new steps against Iran Friday.

The Security Council has adopted three resolutions against Iran. Two include sanctions because of Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment, which it says is purely for civilian energy purposes.

Bush, who was expected to avoid any contact with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN, also pursued their long-distance feud by saying he agreed with New York's decision not to green-light Ahmadinejad's request to visit the "Ground Zero" site where the World Trade Center once stood.

"I can understand why they would not want somebody that's running a country who's a state sponsor of terror down there at the site," said Bush, who vowed a global war on terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The president tersely refused to comment on alleged North Korean nuclear help for Syria, but warned Pyongyang that any such activities would break an aid-for-denuclearization pact reached under six-country negotiations.

"To the extent that they are proliferating, we expect them to stop their proliferation if they want the six-party talks to be successful," he said, calling that "equally important" to giving up nuclear weapons programs.

Bush said last week he was adopting recommendations by his Iraq commander, General David Petraeus, to cut force levels after security advances notably in Anbar province, where Sunni leaders have joined the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The reductions would take the US presence down to about 130,000 by mid-2008, roughly their number before Bush ordered a military "surge" in January, and well shy of levers sought by his Democratic foes and the war-weary US public.

"I have said that progress will yield fewer troops. In other words, return on success is what I said," said the president, who also attacked Democrats for not repudiating a "disgusting" political advertisement assailing Petraeus.

"That leads me to come to this conclusion: That most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group ... than they are of irritating the United States military," he said.

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