- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that nations in the Middle East are at a crossroads — with Iraq facing a “moment of choosing,” newly elected Hamas leaders facing a choice between governance or terrorism, and Iran facing a world nearly united in preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

But his vision for a stable Middle East has suffered setbacks recently — from the Samarra mosque bombing and reprisal killings in Iraq to Hamas’ victory in Palestinian elections to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Mr. Bush, though, said he remains optimistic and added that establishing freedom in the Middle East “is the work of generations.”

Mr. Bush blamed the current political situation in the Middle East for the earlier success of al Qaeda, saying “it was the status quo in the Middle East” that led to the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of the USS Cole and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He condemned the attack on the Shi’ite mosque, calling it “an affront to people of faith throughout the world” and said “coming days will be intense,” but said December’s elections were a turning point for the country.

“More than 11 million Iraqis sent a clear message to the world and to the terrorists — they want their freedom. They want their country to be a democracy,” he said in an address to an American Legion conference at the Capital Hilton Hotel.

Mr. Bush also said Hamas leaders now face a choice because they have won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament.

“Democratically elected leaders cannot have one foot in the camp of democracy and one foot in the camp of terror,” he said.

He set out conditions the leaders must meet: “If they want the help of America and the international community to build a prosperous, independent Palestinian state, they must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace.”

Mr. Bush reserved his harshest criticism for Iran, calling it “the world’s premiere state sponsor of terror.”

He said Iran is a linchpin for the region. “Freedom in the Middle East requires freedom for the Iranian people, and America looks forward to the day when our nation can be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran,” he said.

The president didn’t mention the current political hot-button issue, his administration’s approval of a transfer of major operations at six U.S. ports to a state-run company from the United Arab Emirates.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the decision to exclude it from his speech showed Mr. Bush doesn’t grasp the security challenges facing the United States.

“Even in today’s speech, we heard tough talk, but no acknowledgment that the decision to sell our ports, as well as his administration’s other national security policies, have made America less secure,” Mr. Reid said.

“Democrats understand that it takes more than tough talk to protect the American people in a post-9/11 world. It takes smart policies, strong U.S. leadership, and real resources as well.”

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