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Denouncing Iran, Bush warns Iraq leader to watch step

WASHINGTON – In a warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Bush said Thursday that Iran is a danger to the Middle East and promised that if al-Maliki does not share that view, the president would have a “heart to heart” talk with him.

Bush, appearing at a White House news conference, denounced Iran for its support of terrorist groups and for its nuclear program and threats to Israel. He warned that Iran would face unspecified “consequences” if it continued to provide explosives that kill and injure U.S. troops.

The growing intimacy of Iraq and Iran was on display late Wednesday, when al-Maliki met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other leaders. In a joint appearance, al-Maliki told Ahmadinejad that Iran has a “positive and constructive” role in improving security in Iraq, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Bush also discussed:

Gas taxes. Bush rejected the idea of higher gas taxes to pay for bridge repairs, spurning the suggestion of a senior congressman from his own party.

Rep. Don Young, the former House transportation committee chairman, raised the possibility of a gas tax after saying 500 bridges across the country are similar to the one that collapsed in Minneapolis last week.

Young, an Alaska Republican, proposed raising a federal tax on gasoline by 5 cents a gallon to pay for repairs. “May the sky not fall upon me,” said Young, alluding to his party’s traditional aversion to tax increases.

“Before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities,” Bush said.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s sentence. Bush responded testily to a suggestion that his decision to commute former vice presidential aide Libby’s 30-month jail sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice indicated a lack of accountability in his administration. “Lewis Libby was held accountable,” Bush said sharply. “He was declared guilty by a jury, and he’s paid a high price for it.”

The economy. Bush tried to calm the volatility in the financial markets.

“My belief is that people will make rational decisions based upon facts,” he said. “And the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

The president added that he and his advisers believe the housing market, troubled by mortgage defaults, is not in a crisis. “It looks (like) we’re headed for a soft landing. That’s what the facts say,” the president said.

Guantanamo Bay. Bush refused to predict whether the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for terrorism suspects would be in operation when he left office in January 2009. Bush said he was expressing “an aspiration” when he said he hoped the facility could be closed. The biggest obstacle, he said, was finding places for the prisoners to go. “A lot of people don’t want killers in their midst, and a lot of these people are killers,” he said.

Attorney general controversy. The president offered an unflinching defense of his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. Democrats and Republicans have called for Gonzales’ resignation amid questions about the credibility of his congressional testimony.

“Why would I hold someone accountable who’s done nothing wrong?” Bush said. “I would hope Congress would become more prone to deliver pieces of legislation that matter as opposed to being the investigative body.”

Pakistan. Bush said that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, his embattled war-on-terrorism partner, must hold free presidential elections, share intelligence and take swift action against terrorist leaders pinpointed in his country.

Aware of both Musharraf’s fragile status and his value to Washington as an anti-terrorism ally, Bush dodged talking about unilateral U.S. military action inside Pakistan in favor of stressing U.S.-Pakistani cooperation.

“Am I confident that they will be brought to justice?” the president said of terrorists. “And my answer to you is: ‘Yes, I am confident.’ “

At the same time, Bush took the rare step of telegraphing some of the demands he has made in private to Musharraf: “full cooperation in sharing intelligence,” “swift action taken if there’s actionable intelligence on high-value targets,” and “a free and fair election.”

Critics oppose his plan to seek a new five-year presidential term from outgoing lawmakers and his continued holding of the dual posts of president and chief of the military.

The news conference marked the beginning of what effectively will be a monthlong vacation from Washington for Bush. He will be at his family’s estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, through Sunday and has extended stays scheduled at his Texas ranch for much of the rest of August.