- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

President Bush yesterday said he doesn’t intend to attack Iran but will “respond firmly” if Iranian agents inside Iraq escalate their attacks or supply materials used to attack U.S. troops or Iraqis.

“We will protect our interests in Iraq. That’s what the American people expect us to do,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with National Public Radio. “That’s definitely what our troops want to do, and that’s what the families of our troops want us to do. And if we find the Iranians are moving weapons that will end up harming American troops, we’ll deal with it.”

Shi’ite-controlled Iran is arguably the major international problem for Mr. Bush right now — sharing a border with Iraq, being home to the same religious sect as the majority of Iraqis, and at the same time pursuing a nuclear program in defiance of its international commitments.

The president yesterday also accused Iran of being part of an effort to bring down Lebanon’s government as well, saying it is working with Syria and the terrorist group Hezbollah.

“Their goals are clear,” Mr. Bush said. “They foment violence.”

Iran announced during the weekend that it will offer Iraq military assistance in the form of training, and also offer reconstruction assistance — a move the White House was reluctant to characterize.

That followed news earlier this month that the United States was stepping up its efforts to try to prevent Iran from supplying materials to insurgents — a charge the White House has made before.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are wary of the White House’s tone, fearing it is the first step toward military action against Iran. Top Democrats have said Mr. Bush will have to come seek congressional authority if he wants to expand the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is trying to shore up support for his new plan to secure Iraq, which includes sending 4,000 Marines to Anbar Province to fight al Qaeda and more than 17,000 soldiers to Baghdad to help Iraqi troops restore order in the middle of Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian fighting.

He told NPR that senators would be sending mixed messages if they vote for a resolution opposing the troop increase because those lawmakers voted just last week in favor of a new military commander who says the troops are needed.

“It is ironic that the Senate would vote 81 to nothing to send a general into Iraq who believes he needs more troops to do the job and then send a contradictory message,” the president said, referring to Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who the Senate confirmed last week to become commander of Multinational Force Iraq.

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