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(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush warned Wednesday of a possible "World War III" should Iran gain the know-how to build a nuclear bomb.
"We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel," Bush told reporters at a White House press conference. "So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Bush was responding to a question about how seriously he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear bomb following Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that he had seen no evidence Teheran was constructing such a weapon.
Bush said he would seek clarification on Putin's comments, but indicated that he still thought the Russians were on board with the US push to isolate Iran and to impose sanctions to limit their acquisition of nuclear capabilities.
At the press conference, Bush also subtly blamed Arab countries for not being more active in helping to create a Palestinian state.
"Part of the issue in the past has been that the Arab nations stood on the sidelines and when a state was in reach, they weren't a part of the process encouraging the parties to move forward," Bush said, in response to a question on the nature of the international conference he has called for this fall to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. One reason for the meeting, he said, "is to get Arab buy-in for a state."
He said Arab participation would be one of the ways in which this would be a "comprehensive" meeting, though he wouldn't go into specifics concerning how final-status issues would be addressed. He did say, though, that "there needs to be a vision of what a state could look like because the Palestinians, that have been promised all these years, need to see there's a serious, focused effort to step up a state." He added, however, that "the United States can't impose peace. We can encourage the development of a state."
Despite several attempts by reporters to elicit a response, Bush continued to refuse to comment on the Israeli strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility last month.
When Bush was asked whether he would at least indicate whether he supported Israel's attack taking out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, he responded, "I don't remember what I was doing in 1980 - let's see, I was living in Midland, Texas; I don't remember my reaction that far back."
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said Israel would not have any response to Bush's comments.
Besides his comments on Iran and the Middle East, Bush also presented the Dalai Lama with the US Congress's highest civilian honor on Wednesday and called on Chinese leaders to welcome the monk to Beijing.
The exiled spiritual head of Tibet's Buddhists by his side, Bush praised a man he called a "universal symbol of peace and tolerance, a shepherd of the faithful and a keeper of the flame for his people."
"America cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close their eyes or turn away," Bush said at the US Capitol building, where he personally handed the Dalai Lama the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.
The Dalai Lama, chuckling as he stumbled over his remarks in English, said the award will bring "tremendous joy and encouragement to the Tibetan people" and thanked Bush for his "firm stand on religious freedom and democracy."
Meanwhile former US secretary of state Colin Powell expressed hope Wednesday for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear row.
"I think we can handle that one diplomatically," Powell said in a keynote speech at a forum in Seoul, saying that Teheran appeared determined to move toward having a nuclear program and perhaps nuclear weapons. He did not elaborate.
His comments came a day after Putin issued a veiled warning against any attack on Iran as he began the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Teheran in six decades.
Many Iranians fear that the United States could attack their country over the West's suspicions that the Iranians are secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Putin also said last week that he had seen no "objective data" showing Teheran is trying to construct nuclear weapons.
Powell, the secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, also said North Korea was still a "potential threat" but added he was pleased that the six-nation arms talks aimed at stripping Pyongyang of its nuclear program had started to show progress.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test detonation a year ago, prompting Washington to soften its previous hardline stance toward the reclusive communist nation to help facilitate progress in nuclear disarmament talks.
The North shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and pledged recently to disable its main nuclear facilities and declare all its nuclear programs by year's end in return for economic aid and political concessions.
"I hope that by the end of the year, the North Koreans would meet their obligations... and I think all sides have to show patience," Powell told reporters after a separate meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, according to the Yonhap news agency.
AP contributed to this report.