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Bush Condemns Iranian Threat to World Security, Urges More Democracy in Mideast

President Bush said Sunday that Iran is threatening the security of the world, and that the United States and Arab allies must join together to confront the danger "before it's too late."

Bush said Iran funds terrorist extremists, undermines peace in Lebanon, sends arms to the Taliban, seeks to intimidate its neighbors with alarming rhetoric, defies the United Nations and destabilizes the entire region by refusing to be open about its nuclear program.

"Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terror," Bush said in a speech he delivered about mid-way through his eight-day Mideast trip that began with a renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact — an accord he said whose "time has come."

"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere," Bush said. "So the United States is strengthening our long-standing security commitments with our friends in the Gulf, and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late."

Bush lauded democratic reforms in Gulf nations ruled by authoritarian leaders.

"This new era is being built with the understanding that power is a trust that must be exercised with the consent of the governed," Bush said.

Bush spoke at the Emirates Palace, at an opulent, gold-trimmed hotel where a suite goes for $2,450 a night. Built at a cost of $3 billion, the hotel is a kilometer long from end to end and has a 1.3 kilometer white sand beach — every grain of it imported from Algeria, according to Steven Pike, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy here. Half the audience was dressed in western attire and the other half in Arabic clothes — white robes and headdresses for men and black abayas, many with jeweled edges, for women.

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On Iran, Bush was to offer security assurances to Persian Gulf allies nervous about Iran's military might and spreading influence. Gulf allies are jittery after in Jan. 6 confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels off their shores, but seek assurance that Bush doesn't want war. Any attack on Iran could bring retaliation against military bases on Arab soil or choke the lucrative oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz.

Shortly after landing during a steady rain on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Bush met at a ceremonial palace with Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was appointed president of the United Arab Emirates in 2004 following the death of his father, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The UAE president presented Bush with a ceremonial sash that looked like a thick golden necklace about two feet long. A portrait of the late president hung on the wall behind them.

Earlier Sunday in Bahrain, U.S. Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Gulf, told Bush that he took it "deadly seriously" when an Iranian fleet of high-speed boats charged at and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy passing near Iranian waters. The Iranian naval forces vanished as the American ship commanders were preparing to open fire

Bush spoke with Cosgriff after he had a breakfast of pancakes and bacon with troops of the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain.

"The media may be free to second-guess the military decision, but his (Bush's) captains are not and they take it very seriously," Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to the United Arab Emirates. "They have deliberate and measured ways to engage other traffic there in the Strait of Hormuz, which they did. But all the military people remember what happened in the past, such as the USS. Cole ... The vice admiral said they take it deadly seriously."

Seventeen sailors were killed in a terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

The right response to a rising Iran has been a consistent theme through Bush's travels in the Mideast, beginning with the distress of close ally Israel at the recent U.S. intelligence assessment downgrading the near-term threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. Israel regards Iran as its No. 1 enemy.

In visits over three days in Kuwait, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, Bush also was urging continued and visible Arab support for fragile peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Arab backing, and probably funding, is considered essential to make any agreement stick.

He has played up democratic advances such as suffrage for women in Kuwait, granted in 2005, or the election of a woman member of parliament in Bahrain in 2006. He has avoided any public scolding of his hosts. Bush opened a meeting with women activists in Kuwait on Saturday by thanking the country's leader and noting that Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah had told him he has no regrets about giving women the vote.

A State Department report last year said that Kuwaitis have no right to change their government or to form political parties, are mistreated in custody and have limited rights of free speech and religion. The report, the most recent, covered 2006.

The same human rights report said Bahrain restricts freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices. Last month the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said authorities were holding 39 people picked up in police raids following a week of anti-government demonstrations.

And in the UAE, the State Department report found what it called significant human rights problems including: no citizens' right to change the government and no popularly elected representatives of any kind; flogging as judicially sanctioned punishment; arbitrary detention and incommunicado detention, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press.

Arab eyes rolled three years ago when Bush announced a "freedom agenda," a policy to seed democracy and measure even close friends by their performance.

"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right," Bush said in his second inaugural address in 2005.

"America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies. We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."

The policy has been selectively enforced, and has had unintended consequences where applied. For example, Palestinian Hamas militants won a free election two years ago that set back peace efforts. U.S. officials say they do not regret supporting the election.