President Bush said Saturday it appeared Iran may be playing a role in the current state of unrest in Iraq and advised Iran to stay out of the internal politics of the war-ravaged nation.
And declaring again that the United States would have no part in the fighting now under way between rebel factions and Iraqi loyalists that is threatening the regime of Saddam Hussein, Bush said the Iraqi president "appears to still be calling the shots" in light of a Cabinet shake-up announced by Baghdad Radio.Wrapping up a day of friendly and informal talks with Turkish President Turgut Ozal, a strategic supporter in the Persian Gulf war, Bush went out of his way to praise the NATO ally whose staunch backing included the critical permission to let U.S. warplanes take off from Turkish bases.
He said the two had talked over lingering questions of the region, including postwar security arrangements and the Arab-Israeli conflict and war in Lebanon, and that Turkey would soon be playing a larger role in settling the problems.
"In terms of trying to effect a peace in the gulf and in the Middle East generally, I think Turkey has a very useful role to play and indeed President Ozal suggested that they might be willing to play a useful role," Bush told reporters.
Speaking briefly at the White House where they returned after the talks at the Camp David retreat, Bush also said he would take into consideration Turkish requests for more economic and military assistance but that no new numbers had been discussed by the two presidents.
On the troubled situation in Iraq, the president said reports were still "mixed" but that claims by Saddam that Shiite unrest in southern Iraq had been quelledwere erroneous. He also said the Iraqi president still faced a formidable challenge from rebellious Kurds in the north.
Ozal, too, said he had spoken with the Iraqi ambassador in Turkey before coming to Washington but the situation was no clearer.
"From that talk I understood they have a very difficult situation. I can only say that," Ozal said. Asked if the Iraqi president could survive the current challenges, he added, "That I don't know. But it's difficult for him to stay."
Bush added, "Normal relations with the United States cannot be affected with Saddam Hussein still calling the shots. There are some interesting Cabinet shifts, but nothing that appears to depart from support for Saddam Hussein's policies."
On the question of Iranian interference or backing for the rebel insurrections in southern Iraq, Bush said he was not satisfied Iran had no role. "I'm not sure I do understand what Iran's role is in the south," he replied to the question, pointing to "reports of people going across from Iran into southern Iraq."
But though noting he had no "official estimate" of Iranian involvement, Bush warned, "I think it would be better if everybody stayed out and let the Iraqi people decide what they want to do."
At the same time, Bush said he was pleased Iran had refused to return elite fighter bombers spirited to that country to avoid destruction during the punishing U.S. air war on Iraq. "Frankly, I'm very pleased that they're not," he said. "But that has little to do with who's intervening inside of Iraq."
Ozal's arrival in the United States coincided with approval in Congress Friday for an additional $200 million in aid for Turkey. The United States also has agreed to leave a battery of Patriot missiles in Turkey, valued at about $100 million.