WASHINGTON – President Bush prodded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search) on Wednesday to provide a model for other Mideast nations to follow by holding genuinely democratic and contested presidential elections.
On another international subject, Bush resurrected a legal term that raises the prospect of U.S. actions in response to atrocities in the conflict-ridden Darfur (search) region of western Sudan. He noted that last year his secretary of state at the time, Colin Powell, had "with my concurrence, declared the situation a genocide."
U.S. officials have been avoiding the word. As a signatory to a 1948 U.N. convention on genocide, the United States is committed to preventing the crime and punishing the perpetrators.
Two years of fighting in Darfur, in which government-aligned Arab militias have ransacked villages, has created what the United Nations (search) labels the world's worst humanitarian crisis. An estimated 180,000 people have died in fighting or its aftermath, and about 2 million have been forced from their homes.
After a 10-minute phone call with Mubarak, Bush said he pressed the Egyptian leader to hold "as free and fair elections as possible."
"Now is the time for him to show the world that his great country can set an example for others," Bush told reporters from the Oval Office following a meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Bush said Mubarak assured him "that's just exactly what he wants to do." He also appeared pleased that Mubarak has asked his attorney general to investigate the beating of protesters voting last week on a referendum that cleared the way for Egypt's first contested presidential election.
Bush has promised to make the spread of democracy the primary focus of his second-term foreign policy. That pledge meets a key test in Egypt, the world's largest Arab country and a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.
Mubarak, who has served for 24 years through unchallenged yes-no referendums and is widely expected to run again, has touted the multi-candidate presidential elections later this year as a major democratic reform. Critics dispute that, noting the constitution allows Mubarak's ruling party a say over which challengers can run.
Bush reiterated his demands on the Egyptian process: allow people to vote without intimidation; allow the opposition to campaign on television, whether state-owned or not; allow people to carry signs advocating for or against all candidates; and count every vote. The president has also called for international monitors.
Darfur was a key topic in Bush's sessions with Mbeki, and the president also discussed the lessened, but still ongoing, violence there with NATO (search) Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. NATO has agreed to supply airlift capability and training, including a U.S. military transport plane, for African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.
The African Union (search) has been seeking international financing and logistical help as it more than triples the size of its peacekeeping force in Darfur.
The Bush administration hopes that ending the conflict in Darfur would invigorate the larger peace process in Sudan. The mostly Arab Sudanese government in Khartoum in the North and the black African rebels based in the South reached a fragile peace agreement in January to end Sudan's 22-year civil war.
Mbeki assured Bush that it is not troops from the United States or any other non-African nation that are needed.
"It's an African responsibility and we can do it. So what we've asked for is the necessary logistical and other support to be able to ensure that we discharge our responsibilities," Mbeki said. "That's what is critically important."
Bush also gave a public slap to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts to persuade the world's wealthiest nations to back his plan to double aid to Africa. Blair, the host of this year's summit of the major eight industrialized democracies, hopes to use the meeting in early July in Gleneagles, Scotland, to raise an extra $50 billion a year by selling bonds on the world's capital markets.
"It doesn't fit our budgetary process," Bush said. The Bush administration says the mechanism would conflict with U.S. budget laws by binding future governments to providing money.
Turning to Zimbabwe, Bush said he is concerned "about a leadership that does not adhere to democratic principles" and about a country that once was the region's breadbasket but now faces possible famine.
The economy in the southern African nation has been sliding since President Robert Mugabe (search) introduced his land reform program and confiscated 5,000 white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks.