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(photo credit: AP [file])
US President George W. Bush said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, his embattled war-on-terror partner, must hold free presidential elections, share intelligence and take "swift action" against terrorist leaders pinpointed in his country.
Bush, at a news conference, spent 45 minutes answering questions on an unusually broad set of issues. They ranged from Iran's role in Iraq, last week's bridge collapse in Minnesota, the friendly fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a plunge in the home-mortgage market, the possible closing of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tax policy and accountability in his administration.
Holding the session just before leaving Washington to spend much of the rest of the month on vacation and traveling, the president took a sharp parting shot at the Democratic-led Congress, which began an August recess last weekend.
"The problem in Congress is they have trouble actually focusing on priorities," Bush said. "The role of the president, it seems to me, is to help Congress focus on that which is important."
The White House and Congress are feuding over the dozen spending bills needed to fund the federal government's operations after the current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was ready with a tart response.
"It is laughable that a man who has turned record surpluses into record deficits would lecture anyone about proper investments for our nation," said Reid, a Democrat. "America has had just about enough of President Bush's misguided priorities."
After the news conference, Bush left for a long weekend at his father's oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he is attending a wedding and hosting French President Nicolas Sarkozy for lunch. Also during August, Bush is spending time at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, and traveling to Canada and other locales.
Musharraf is under growing US pressure to crack down on militants along the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani leader is under considerable pressure at home, too, where his support is dwindling and violence is on the rise.
Aware of both Musharraf's fragile status and his value to Washington as an anti-terror ally, Bush dodged talking about unilateral US military action inside Pakistan in favor of stressing US-Pakistani cooperation.
"Am I confident that they will be brought to justice?" the president said of terrorists. "And my answer to you is: `Yes, I am confident."'
At the same time, Bush took the rare step of telegraphing some of the demands he has made in private to Musharraf: "full cooperation in sharing intelligence," "swift action taken if there's actionable intelligence on high-value targets," and "a free and fair election."
Musharraf, an army general, seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup and pledged to quickly restore democracy. Critics oppose his plan to seek a new five-year presidential term from outgoing lawmakers and his continued holding of the dual posts of president and chief of the military.
Bush also said that warm words and pictures between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would not surprise him. But he indicated a desire to "get the facts" from al-Maliki on the message he is sending to Iranian leaders during a three-day visit to Teheran.
"The way these things work is you try to be cordial to the person you're with, and so you don't want the picture to be kind of, you know, duking it out," the president said, holding up his hands in a boxing pose. But, he added: "If the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend, the prime minister."
US officials say Teheran is exporting into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices that are being used to kill US personnel and Sunnis