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Bush Backs Israel's Right to Self Defense

Associated | July 13, 2006
By TOM RAUM

STRALSUND, Germany (AP) - President Bush said Thursday that Israel has the right to defend itself, as it launched fresh attacks on Lebanon after the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.

Bush laid the blame for the escalation of violence along the border on Hezbollah, whose guerrillas mounted a cross-border raid earlier in the week and captured the two soldiers. He also said that Syria "needs to be held to account" for supporting and harboring Hezbollah.

"The soldiers need to be returned," the president said. "It's really sad where people are willing to take innocent life in order to stop that progress (for peace). As a matter of fact, it's pathetic."

Bush's comments came during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as Israel intensified attacks in Lebanon.

In response to Wednesday's kidnappings, Israel bombed Beirut's airport and the southern part of the country in its heaviest air campaign against its neighbor in 24 years. Israel also imposed an air and naval blockade on Lebanon to cut off supply routes to militants.

The violence comes at a delicate time in the Middle East - and for the United States and its European allies, which are trying to preserve a coalition to confront Iran over suspected nuclear ambitions.

Merkel appealed for restraint from both sides in the Mideast. But she suggested they do not share equal blame, repeatedly noting that the violence began with the kidnapping.

"I think that one needs to be careful to make a distinction between the root causes and the consequences of something," she said.

Bush was pressed on whether Israel's military assaults, which have killed nearly three dozen civilians, could trigger a wider war. He tempered his strong defense of Israel by saying his "biggest concern" was that the attacks could weaken the Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and make it harder for the fledgling democracy movement there to continue to grow.

"Whatever Israel does, though, it should not weaken the Saniora government in Lebanon," he said. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon."

"Having said that, people need to protect themselves," he added, referring to Israel.

On Iran, both Bush and Merkel declined to take a hard line against Tehran, which has defied appeals from the United States, Germany and other nations to provide an answer by Wednesday on whether it would accept a package of incentives to halt uranium enrichment. The United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with Germany and the European Union, have agreed to raise Iran's behavior at the Security Council for possible punishment.

"I truly think they are trying to wait us out," Bush said. "And I think they are going to be sorely mistaken. I think they are going to be disappointed, that this coalition is a lot stronger than they think."

Said Merkel: "Should Iran not in any way reply to this offer and accept this offer, we unfortunately have to embark on a new course."

She added, "The door has not been closed."

Downplaying tensions between U.S. and Russia - where Bush is headed on Friday - the president laughed off a snide comment directed at Vice President Dick Cheney by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the former Soviet republic of Lithuania in May, Cheney had accused the Kremlin under Putin of backsliding from democracy and bullying Russia's neighbors on energy.

"I think the statements of your vice president of this sort are the same as an unsuccessful hunting shot," Putin said in an interview with NBC broadcast on Wednesday. The remark referred to Cheney's shotgun blast on a hunting trip that accidentally wounded a companion.

"It was pretty clever," said Bush, who meets with Putin ahead of a summit of world leaders. "It was quite humorous, not to diss my friend the vice president."

Both Merkel and Bush said they would like to see democratic reforms in Russia and would press that point in private. But they agreed they are reluctant to criticize Putin harshly in public.

"Nobody really likes to be lectured a lot," Bush said.

With Merkel, Bush was celebrating a new era of relatively tension-free U.S.-German relations. The controversy between the two countries over American detentions at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba didn't even come up in their joint availability - either in remarks by the leaders or questions from reporters.

"I bring a message from the American people: we're honored to call the German people friends and allies," Bush told a crowd of several hundred gathered for his arrival in this northern port city's old market square.

Merkel welcomed Bush to her home district in the formerly communist Eastern Bloc region with a gift of a small barrel of local herring. The president laughed, both surprised and pleased.

Bush and Merkel have had an increasingly warm relationship since November when she succeeded former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who opposed Bush on the Iraq war.

However, Merkel has criticized keeping terror suspects in detention in the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

A military band played marches in the cobblestoned city center - towered by St. Nicholas Church and a town hall dating to medieval times - where most of the president's events for the day took place.

In the evening, Bush's visit to Merkel's old neighborhood was wrapping up with a wild boar barbecue in the small town of Trinwillershagen.

Though anti-Bush protesters gathered, thousands of police were keeping most far from the areas Bush was to tour.

But before the president's arrival from an overnight in a resort town on the Baltic Sea, a representative from the environmental group Greenpeace struggled to display a yellow "No War, No Nukes, No Bush" banner from the church's clock tower.

Reflecting the widespread dislike of the Iraq war in Germany, eight rainbow peace banners also hung from the trade union building on the square, directly across from Bush's podium.

Security was tight. Fighter jets patrolled the skies and police checked the city's 2,200 manhole covers, welded shut to ensure nothing disrupted Bush's visit. Residents were prohibited from opening windows and shops were ordered closed.

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