Bush prods Pakistan to hold free elections
WASHINGTON – President Bush said Thursday that 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 U.S. 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, D-Nev. “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 U.S. 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 U.S. military action inside Pakistan in favor of stressing U.S.-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 said warm words and pictures between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn’t 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 Tehran.”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.”U.S. officials say Tehran is exporting into Iraq sophisticated explosive devices that are being used to kill U.S. personnel and Sunnis.On other matters:-The president rejected calls by some members of both parties for an increase in the federal gasoline tax to pay for repairing “structurally deficient” bridges. More than 70,000 of the nation’s bridges are so rated, including the span that collapsed over the Mississippi River last Wednesday. Bush said Congress first must change its practice of letting lawmakers on key committees have a first crack at earmarking federal highway dollars before the balance is distributed to states.-He also rejected any direct government aid to homeowners losing their houses to foreclosures. He said such people deserve “enormous empathy,” and the government could help by encouraging refinancing and educating prospective home buyers about difficult mortgage terms.-The president grew angry over a question about accountability, offering an unflinching defense for his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Gonzales’ resignation amid questions about the credibility of his congressional testimony on a number of issues.”Why would I hold someone accountable who’s done nothing wrong?” Bush said. “I would hope Congress would become more prone to deliver pieces of legislation that matter as opposed to being the investigative body.”-Bush said he expects the military to “get to the bottom” of why the truth about how Tillman died was kept from the public and Tillman’s family for five weeks. Amid suspicions among some of a cover-up that reached high into military ranks, Bush said, “I can’t give you the precise moment” that he found out.-He said it’s unclear whether Guantanamo Bay can be closed during his administration, because of difficulties finding countries to contain the prisoners while treating them humanely. “It’s not as easy a subject as some may think,” Bush said.