In a warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, President Bush said Thursday that Iran was a danger to the Middle East, and promised that if Maliki did not share that view, the president would have a "heart to heart" talk with him.
Appearing at a White House news conference, Bush denounced Tehran for what he said was its support of terrorist groups, and for its nuclear program and threats to Israel. The president, who says that Iran provides explosives used against U.S. troops in Iraq, warned that Tehran would face unspecified "consequences" if such activity continued.
His comments came as Maliki wrapped up a visit to Iran, where he held apparently harmonious meetings with top Iranian officials. Bush said he presumed that Maliki shared his critical view of the Tehran government, but he added that "if the signal [from Maliki] is that Iran is constructive, I will have a heart to heart with my friend the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive."
Bush's comments pointed to the continuing challenges his administration faces in trying to deal with the ever-closer relationship between Tehran and the predominantly Shiite Muslim government in Baghdad.
U.S. officials believe that Maliki's government shares their concern about weapons allegedly supplied by Iran, but they also acknowledge anxiety about the fundamentalist Tehran regime's increasing trade with and aid to Iraq, as well as the close personal ties its officials enjoy with counterparts throughout the Baghdad government.
The growing intimacy of Baghdad and Tehran was on display late Wednesday, when Maliki met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials. In a joint appearance, Maliki told Ahmadinejad that Iran has a "positive and constructive" role in improving security in Iraq, the official IRNA news agency reported.
On Thursday night, Iranian television broadcast a statement from Khamenei, declaring, "We support the elected government of Iraq, and all of the factions and ethnic groups should cooperate with the elected government. The only problem, the big problem in Iraq today, is the occupation of Iraq by British and American forces."
Bush said he wanted to be briefed by U.S. officials in Baghdad before drawing conclusions about the meetings in Tehran. But he said, "My message to the Iranian people is, 'You can do better than this current government.' "
Iraq was not the only neighbor of Iran whose leader provoked a rejoinder from Bush this week.
At a White House appearance Monday, after Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, declared that Iran had "been a helper" to his country, Bush insisted that "they're not a force for good."
In other comments on Iraq at his Thursday news conference, Bush argued that the Iraqi central government was not receiving credit for the progress it has made in sharing revenue with provincial governments. He contended that there had been a significant strengthening of local governments, notably in long-troubled Al Anbar province.
Bush said that although media reports made Iraq's government sound "totally dysfunctional," Baghdad last year allocated $2.3 billion for the provinces, $1.9 billion of which he said had been obligated or spent.
A walkout by four secular Sunni Muslim ministers this week has left Maliki's government paralyzed, with 17 of its 37 members boycotting. At the end of July, the Iraqi parliament recessed without taking action on legislation the Bush administration considers crucial to quelling sectarian violence.
Bush said that though he didn't deny that "there is more work that needs to be done," there was also evidence that "the government is learning how to function." He said that these signs should be considered as Americans weigh whether to "stay in Iraq long enough for an ally in this war against radicals and extremists to emerge."
Bush's comments appeared to be laying the groundwork for the arguments his team will formulate as it prepares to deliver a status report on Iraq to Congress next month. Many critics and even some senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have said that although the U.S. troop buildup was helping security in some areas, the central government remained at an impasse on key issues.
Now, the White House appears to be preparing to make an argument that there are emerging signs of vitality in the government.
Yet there are indications that local and provincial governments remain weak and starved for support.
Officials from Al Anbar in the west regularly travel to Baghdad to lobby for funds they say are due them. Shiite clerics from Karbala and Najaf, in the south, frequently denounce the central government for failing to provide services.
Bush hailed the Iraqi parliament for passing 60 laws this year, including a number aimed at dismantling statutes from Saddam Hussein's era. But Iraqi officials say most of these laws were minor, and that revocation of the Hussein-era statutes was a pro forma exercise.
Bush was asked about reports that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, beleaguered by moderate and fundamentalist opponents, was close to declaring a state of emergency. Such a step could weaken the effort against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the country's tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan.
Bush said he had seen "no such evidence that he's made that decision," and asserted that Musharraf remained committed to fighting the extremist groups. The Pakistani president decided Thursday against declaring an emergency.
Bush said his focus was on persuading Musharraf to carry out his pledge to allow free elections.
"And that's what we have been talking to them about. I'm hopeful they will," Bush said.
Times staff writers Ned Parker in Baghdad and Kim Murphy in Tehran contributed to this report.