WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Bush staunchly defended a tough new administration policy on Iran that is drawing criticism at home and anxiety abroad, insisting yesterday that it is only sensible for U.S. troops to move aggressively against Iranians who endanger them in Iraq.
Bush, appearing with military advisers at the White House, said the policy is not meant to spread U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran, but asserted that U.S. troops have the right to seek out agents from Tehran, which he has accused of supporting Iraqi militants.
"It just makes sense that if somebody is trying to harm our troops or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent civilians in Iraq, that we will stop them," Bush said.
The administration announced two weeks ago, as part of its new strategy on Iraq, that it would move more aggressively against Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq. Simultaneously, the White House moved Navy warships and fighter jets into the Persian Gulf in a display of determination to maintain its influence in the region.
The new push has been welcomed by some Sunni Arab countries that are worried about the rising influence of predominantly Shiite Iran, as well as by members of Congress of both parties who are nervous about the prospect that Tehran may acquire a nuclear weapon and possibly use it to threaten Israel.
But the aggressive approach has been unsettling to Shiite Arabs and Kurdish leaders in Iraq, and others in the United States and Europe, who fear that the confrontational words and moves could spiral into military confrontation at a time when the Middle East is already torn by sectarian strife.
The administration's announced tougher overall stance has raised questions on how far the United States plans to go to confront or control the estimated thousands of Iranians in Iraq, who include not only military and intelligence agents but also humanitarian workers, pilgrims and businesspeople.
Bush said that suggestions that the administration wants to widen its military campaign into Iran were "just not accurate." He insisted that he would work to settle differences with Iran diplomatically. "And I believe we can succeed," he said.
Bush was joined in his warning to Tehran by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other administration officials who were asked about a report that U.S. forces were given orders to kill or capture Iranians found in Iraq. Administration officials said that U.S. forces have authority to do whatever is necessary to defend themselves in Iraq, but did not confirm The Washington Post report about special orders.
Gates said it was his "impression" that U.S. forces have always had the authority to go after Iranian agents who were helping construct bombs in Iraq. But Gates said U.S. forces would go after anyone trying to kill American troops through any means, including distributing parts to build the roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices.
"We are trying to uproot these networks that are planting IEDs that are causing 70 percent of our casualties," he said. "And if you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target."
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.