Bush Says Iran Must Re­lease ‘Hostages’

Tone Marks Shift On Bri­tish Sailors; Tehran Also Digs In

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Peter Baker

CAMP DAVID, March 31 — Pres­i­dent Bush on Satur­day con­demned Iran’s seizure of 15 Bri­tish sailors and marines as “ inex­cus­able be­hav­ior” and de­manded that the “ hostages” be re­leased, weigh­ing in for the first time as the sit­u­a­tion es­ca­lates into a sus­tained con­fronta­tion with Tehran.

Bush said the sailors had been op­er­at­ing legally in Iraqi ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters in the Per­sian Gulf, as the Bri­tish have in­sisted, and not in Ira­nian wa­ters, and he of­fered sup­port for Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Tony Blair’s ef­forts “ to re­solve this peace­fully.” But he re­jected any “ quid pro quo” trade of Ira­ni­ans held by U. S. forces in Iraq and ducked a ques­tion about whether mil­i­tary force would be jus­ti­fied to free the cap­tured sailors.

“ The Ira­ni­ans must give back the hostages,” the pres­i­dent told re­porters at a brief ques­tion- an­dan­swer ses­sion at Camp David af­ter a meet­ing with the visit­ing Brazil­ian pres­i­dent. “ They’re in­no­cent, they were do­ing noth­ing, and they were sum­mar­ily plucked out of the wa­ter. As I say, it’s inex­cus­able be­hav­ior.”

Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad made his own first pub­lic com­ments on the stand­off Satur­day, ac­cus­ing Bri­tain of ar­ro­gance and com­plain­ing that it should not have “ shouted in dif­fer-

ent in­ter­na­tional coun­cils,” ac­cord­ing to Ira­nian state ra­dio. “ This is not the le­gal and log­i­cal way” to act, he said in Khuzes­tan, a prov­ince that borders the Per­sian Gulf.

The tough words sug­gested that both sides are dig­ging in for a more pro­longed stand­off that may not be re­solved eas­ily. The sailors, 14 men and one wo­man, were re­turn­ing from in­spect­ing a cargo ship for pos­si­ble smug­gling when the Ira­nian navy seized them March 23. Since then, Tehran has re­leased footage and let­ters that it says are con­fes­sions that the 15 en­tered Ira­nian wa­ters. Bri­tain has re­leased satel­lite data to but­tress its case that its per­son­nel were in Iraqi wa­ters.

The United States had tried to keep a low profile on the mat­ter and de­ferred to Blair ap­par­ently out of a de­sire to avoid fur­ther in­flam­ing ten­sions by in­sert­ing the fraught U. S.- Ira­nian re­la­tion­ship into the sit­u­a­tion. But some U. S. and Bri­tish of­fi­cials be­lieve the cap­ture may have been a re­tal­i­a­tion for the seizure of Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard op­er­a­tives by U. S. forces in Iraq or for the U. S.led ef­fort at the United Na­tions to sanc­tion Iran for its nu­clear pro­gram.

Bush point­edly chose tough lan­guage Satur­day. Af­ter start­ing to de­scribe the mat­ter as “ the Ira­nian is­sue,” he quickly stopped and cor­rected him­self to call it “ the Bri­tish hostage is­sue.” In re­sponse to an­other ques­tion, he de­nounced Iran’s de­fi­ance of U. N. de­mands that it halt its ura­ni­u­men­rich­ment pro­gram. “ It is in the world’s in­ter­est that Iran not de­velop a [ nu­clear] weapon,” he said. He would not say whether he would con­sider the seizure of U. S. sailors an act of war.

Iran ap­peared to take a step fur­ther by sig­nal­ing that it might put the Bri­tish on trial. Gho­lam­reza An­sari, Tehran’s am­bas­sador to Moscow, told Rus­sian television that le­gal pro­ceed­ings have be­gun against the sailors and marines and that they could “ face pun­ish­ment” if found guilty of il­le­gally be­ing in Ira­nian wa­ters, a state­ment that trig­gered con­cern at a meet­ing of Euro­pean Union for­eign min­is­ters in Ger­many.

Blair’s gov­ern­ment ap­peared to be set­tling in for a long- term cri­sis but was still seek­ing a way to defuse it diplo­mat­i­cally, ac­cord­ing to re­ports out of Lon­don. The Sun­day Tele­graph re­ported Satur­day on its Web site that of­fi­cials may send an en­voy to Tehran who would not ad­mit a vi­o­la­tion of Ira­nian ter­ri­tory but would prom­ise the Is­lamic gov­ern­ment that Bri­tain will never know­ingly en­ter Ira­nian wa­ters with­out per­mis­sion, a for­mu­la­tion de­signed to se­cure the re­lease of the cap­tives while al­low­ing both sides to save face.

Bush’s com­ments came dur­ing a meet­ing with re­porters along­side Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva, who was visit­ing the pres­i­den­tial re­treat here in the Ca­toctin Moun­tains. The meet­ing was Bush’s sec­ond with Lula in just a few weeks, fol­low­ing the pres­i­dent’s stop in Sao Paulo dur­ing a Latin Amer­i­can tour this month.

Bush, who uses his rare Camp David in­vi­ta­tions to flat­ter for­eign lead­ers with the im­pres­sion of in­ti­macy, has made Lula key to his strat­egy to counter the in­flu­ence of Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez and to ex­pand the pro­duc­tion of ethanol and other al­terna- tive fu­els. Lula is the first Latin Amer­i­can leader brought to Camp David since 1998 and the first hosted for a “ work­ing visit” since 1991.

But Iran shad­owed even their talks be­cause of re­cent U. S. com­plaints about busi­ness ties be­tween Petro­bras, a ma­jor Brazil­ian en­ergy com­pany, and Tehran. Lula dis­missed those griev­ances, not­ing that no in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions have been vi­o­lated and call­ing the Ira­ni­ans im­por­tant trad­ing part­ners. “ We have no po­lit­i­cal di­ver­gence with them,” Lula said.

Bush ac­knowl­edged that Brazil is not vi­o­lat­ing sanc­tions but of­fered a gen­tle re­buke. “ We would hope that na­tions would be very care­ful in deal­ing with Iran,” he said.

Lula also tested Bush’s famed im­pa­tience with a ram­bling, 20minute open­ing state­ment ( com­pared with the pres­i­dent’s own four- minute in­tro­duc­tion) and lec­tured at length about what he called the loom­ing cri­sis of global warm­ing. “ Please pay at­ten­tion,” Lula said as he rat­tled off dis­turb­ing in­di­ca­tions of cli­mate change. “ Global warm­ing is a re­al­ity that threat­ens us by land, air and wa­ter.”

On do­mes­tic mat­ters, Bush used the ses­sion to of­fer sup­port to em­bat­tled At­tor­ney Gen­eral Al­berto R. Gon­za­les, whose ve­rac­ity was called into ques­tion last week by his for­mer chief of staff in con­nec­tion with the fir­ings of U. S. at­tor­neys.

“ At­tor­ney Gen­eral Gon­za­les is an hon­or­able and hon­est man, and he has my full con­fi­dence,” Bush said. When Gon­za­les goes to Capi­tol Hill, the pres­i­dent said, “ he will tes­tify in front of Congress, and he will tell the truth.”

Gon­za­les’s seem­ingly con­flict­ing ac­counts of his role in the fir­ings prompted a GOP law­maker to call Satur­day for his res­ig­na­tion. “ I trusted him be­fore, but I can’t now,” Rep. Lee Terry ( Neb.) said, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press. Al­though he once thought the con­tro­versy was just a Demo­cratic “ witch hunt,” Terry said, “ my trust in him in that po­si­tion has taken a hit be­cause of th­ese con­tra­dic­tory state­ments by him.”

Bush also sparred with Democrats over leg­is­la­tion to be­gin with­draw­ing troops from Iraq. The pres­i­dent said in his weekly ra­dio ad­dress that it “ would sub­sti­tute the judg­ment of politi­cians in Wash­ing­ton for that of our mil­i­tary com­man­ders” and “ set an ar­bi­trary dead­line for sur­ren­der.” And he mocked pork- bar­rel spend­ing in the war fund­ing bill, such as se­cure peanut stor­age. “ I like peanuts as much as the next guy,” Bush said, “ but I be­lieve the se­cu­rity of our troops should come be­fore the se­cu­rity of our peanut crop.”

For their re­sponse, Democrats tapped re­tired Marine Lt. Col. Andrew Horne, who served two tours in Iraq and lost a race for Congress in Ken­tucky last fall.

Horne said the leg­is­la­tion would set badly needed bench­marks for Iraqis: “ If the pres­i­dent ve­toes this bill be­cause he doesn’t want to for­mally demon­strate progress in Iraq, never in the his­tory of war would there be a more bla­tant ex­am­ple of a com­man­der in chief un­der­min­ing the troops un­der his care.” Staff writer Robin Wright in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.


Pres­i­dent Bush made his re­marks about Iran as he met with re­porters at Camp David along­side the pres­i­dent of Brazil, Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva.

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