Mideast Countries Blast Speech

Iran and Syria rejected President Bush's charges that they sponsored terrorism, with an Iranian official calling the claims groundless Thursday and the Syrian information minister saying the democracy that Washington seeks for the Middle East cannot come through force.

Although criticized for his stern words on Syria and Iran, Bush also won some praise in the region for calling in his State of the Union address (search) for an independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel.

He accused Iran of being "the world's primary state sponsor of terror," saying Washington is working with European allies to convince Tehran to end its nuclear programs and stop supporting terror.

Addressing the Iranian people, he said: "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi (search), in remarks carried by the official news agency, said Bush's words were "a repetition of his former groundless claims and accusations. He talked about some issues that are not related to the current situation while closed his eyes on realities of Iran."

On a street in the Iranian capital, Ali Dehqani said Bush should stay out of Iran's business.

"Bush's comment is right somehow. The people of Iran are restricted. Iran follows nuclear technology. But it's not his business to intervene in Iran's affairs," the 55-year-old man said. "Also, there is no evidence of support of terrorism by Iran."

Bush's speech amounted to "incitement and provocation against Iran," said Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the Saudi newspaper Arab News. He described the policy as "wrong and dangerous."

Ayed al-Manna, columnist in the Al-Watan daily in Kuwait, said Bush's words to the Iranians were "dangerous" and he feared such a move would lead to bloodshed. The Iranian regime is strong and it would be "better to talk to it and develop the democracy already in place," he said.

Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov (search), head of the foreign policy committee in the State Duma, the lower house, said Bush's characterization of Iran as the main center of world terrorism showed that his speech was "written by propagandists, not analysts."

Bush said America will work with friends in the region to fight terror while encouraging a higher standard of freedom. He said Syria allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by "terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace" in the region.

"We expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom," Bush said.

Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah (search) rejected the accusations.

"Everyone knows that Syria is cooperating in fighting terrorism, but the definition of terrorism cannot be selective and based on ideology and politics," he said on Al-Jazeera Arab satellite television.

Syria has cooperated with the West on tracking down Al Qaeda supporters but has rejected U.S. calls to crack down on Palestinian militant groups Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search) as well as Lebanese Hezbollah (search) guerrillas who operate in southern Lebanon. Washington labels the Palestinian and Lebanese groups as terrorists.

The United States also accuses Syria of allowing insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, claims that Syria denies.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani said Damascus "has worked and is working to do everything in its power to control" the border with Iraq.

Dakhlallah described Bush's remarks about an independent Palestinian state as a "positive development."

"Freedoms cannot be exported by tanks and planes, death and destruction," he said. "The characteristics of the region and the distinctiveness of its peoples and cultures must be understood," he said.

Bush also called on Saudi Arabia and Egypt to take steps toward democracy, words that some analysts took as interference.

"We thank Mr. Bush, but we are already having elections," said al-Maeena of Arab News. He referred to the staging later this month of Saudi Arabia's first municipal elections in 45 years.

"I don't believe we need Mr. Bush to advise us," he said. "This is an internal issue and we are working on it."

Bush only briefly mentioned North Korea during his State of the Union address, saying Washington was "working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions."

That was a stark contrast to his speech three years ago, when he branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

The absence of hostile rhetoric raised hopes for a positive response from North Korea. Analysts have said the North was waiting to see what Bush would say in the speech.

"We assess that President Bush's speech reflected Washington's will to resolve the North's nuclear issue through a peaceful and diplomatic way," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said. "Now, it's time for North Korea to make a positive response and for us to resume the six-party talks soon and make concrete progress for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue."

Analysts in South Korea predicted that the absence of harsh words would help restart the nuclear talks.

"The United States appears to have carefully prepared the speech so as not to give North Korea an excuse for not coming to the six-party talks," Kim Sung-han, a professor at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said in an interview with TV channel YTN.

Professor Koh Yu-hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University said Bush seemed to be giving North Korea "one more chance."

After the speech, Bush spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and agreed that it was important to communicate to Pyongyang "that the world was serious about the North Korean problem," Japan's Foreign Ministry said.

Since 2003, the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of talks on the North's nuclear weapons programs. But no significant progress was reported. A fourth round of talks scheduled for September did not take place because North Korea refused to attend.