US President George W. Bush sternly warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Thursday against cozying up to Iran, amid what Washington sees as unsettling signs of warming Baghdad-Tehran relations.
Bush, holding a pre-vacation press conference, said he was not surprised at pictures showing cordial meetings between Maliki and top Iranian leaders in Tehran but that he hoped the prime minister was delivering a tough message.
“You don’t want the picture to be kind of, you know, duking it out,” when on a diplomatic mission he said, putting up his fists like a boxer.
But “if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart to heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don’t believe they are constructive,” said Bush, who called Iran “a very troubling nation.”
The US president’s comments came days after he disagreed sharply with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about Iran’s influence after Karzai called Tehran a positive force in combating extremist forces in his country.
And they came as top US officials worried about the pace of political reconciliation in Iraq, amid misgivings in Washington about whether Maliki, a Shiite, truly wanted or was able to build bridges to minority Sunnis.
Iran, which the United States blames for fomenting much of the bloodshed in Iraq, earlier gave visiting Maliki its full support for restoring security but told him a pullout of US forces was the only way to end the violence.
According to the state-run IRNA news agency, Maliki thanked Iran for its “positive and constructive” work in “providing security and fighting terrorism in Iraq.”
Bush expressed skepticism and warned Iran “there will be a price to pay” if its agents are caught undermining US-led efforts in Iraq.
“There will be consequences” for any Iranians shipping weapons, including sophisticated roadside bombs, inside Iraq, said the US president, who branded Tehran “a destabilizing influence” in the Middle East.
Bush cited Iran’s support for Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah; Tehran’s suspect nuclear program; and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel warnings, which he said Washington “cannot live with.”
“My message to the Iranian people is, ‘You can do better than this current government. You don’t have to be isolated. You don’t have to be in a position where you can’t realize your full economic potential,’” Bush said.
Asked whether he was confident that, in past talks, Maliki shared his view about Iran, the US president replied: “Does he understand with some extremist groups there’s connections with Iran? And he does. And I’m confident.”
Maliki’s talks appeared to confirm the increasingly warm relations that have emerged between majority Shiite Iraq and overwhelmingly Shiite Iran following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.
In a highly symbolic move, Maliki met the families of seven Iranian officials arrested in Iraq by US forces on accusations of being members of an elite Revolutionary Guards force on a mission to stir trouble.
Iran insists the men were diplomats and is livid that the United States has shown no sign of releasing them.
Bush, who was bound for his family’s oceanside compound in the northeastern state of Maine, also acknowledged difficulties in forging political reconciliation in Iraq — one of the key goals of the US-led crackdown.
“There is a lot of work left to be done, don’t get me wrong,” he said, noting the failure of Iraqi lawmakers to pass key legislation aimed at soothing disputes that fuel sectarian violence.
But “if one were to look hard, they could find indications that — more than indications, facts that show the government is learning how to function,” said the president.