'Disclosure sends message to Iran'

Bush: Details on alleged strike on Syrian reactor delayed for fear it might spark conflict.

Bush best 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bush best 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush said Tuesday that his administration broke its silence last week over Israel's strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear site in September to increase international pressure on Iran, Syria and North Korea. He differed with the assessment of some Israeli officials that discussing the raid now could trigger a Syrian attack, but added that he had thought releasing the information closer to the time of the attack could have led to conflict. "We were concerned that an early disclosure would increase the risk of a confrontation in the Middle East or retaliation," he said at a Rose Garden press conference, describing that threat as now "reduced." Just 22 members of Congress were briefed right after September 6, when the Israel Air Force reportedly destroyed a nascent nuclear facility that the White House said Syria was building with the help of North Korea. But following months of congressional pressure, the Bush administration gave classified briefings to many more lawmakers last Thursday followed by disclosures to the media. Several Israeli defense officials had voiced concern that the revelations, which included video footage showing strong similarities between the Syrian facility and North Korea's nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, as well as North Koreans inside the Syrian compound, would embarrass Damascus and encourage aggression. Several members of Congress, though, have argued that the administration waited too long to provide information and that this raises questions about its motives for the disclosure. Bush told reporters on Tuesday that the information was important in setting policy towards North Korea, with which the administration is trying to complete a de-nuclearization deal. That process, known as the six-party talks, has reached a critical point. Bush said the administration wanted "to make it abundantly clear" to the North Koreans that "we may know more about you than you think, and therefore, it's essential that you have a complete disclosure on not only your plutonium activities, but proliferation, as well as enrichment activities." Bush also said that, having waited for the risk of retaliation to abate, he wanted to send "a message to Iran" - and the world - about the Islamic Republic's nuclear activity. "It's essential that we work together to enforce UN Security Council resolutions aimed at getting Iran to stop their enrichment programs," he said. "One of the things that this example shows is that these programs can exist and people don't know about them - because the Syrians simply didn't declare the program; they had a hidden program." That in turn, Bush said, should remind the international community of the need to work together to deal with the challenges posed by Syria, including its support for Hamas. Asked about former US president Jimmy Carter's recent meetings with Hamas officials, Bush declined to criticize the Nobel Prize winner, despite widespread criticism in Israel - as well as from his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice - over his public visit with leaders of what the US has branded a terrorist organization. "Anybody can talk to who they want, but I just want the people to understand that the problem is Hamas," Bush said in response to questions about whether Carter had undermined the administration's efforts in the Middle East. Bush added that it was important to provide an alternative vision for Palestinians. That made the process of creating a Palestinian state even more important, he stressed, which he gave as a key purpose of his trip to Jerusalem to help celebrate the Israeli state's 60th birthday next month. Bush noted that Rice would soon be traveling to the region to move the process along. In Washington on Tuesday, Rice participated in a meeting of the US- Palestinian Partnership, which is trying to develop business opportunities in the Palestinian territories and is planning a conference for international corporate investors in Bethlehem in May. She also met on Monday with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who heads Israel's team for strategic talks with the US. Mofaz told Rice of the growing threat of Hizbullah on the southern border and what a return of the Golan to Syria could mean. "Handing over the Golan Heights to Syria means having the Iranians on the Golan Heights," he said. His comments were in contrast to reports that Israel has been exploring the possibility of trading the Golan for peace with Syria. Despite calling the Golan "a strategic asset that must not be handed over to the Syrians," Mofaz, speaking with the Israeli press after the meeting, added, "That doesn't mean emissaries can't be dispatched and that messages can't be sent."