CAMP DAVID — CAMP DAVID -- President Bush expressed profound skepticism yesterday that security in Afghanistan is getting a boost from Iran, just days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai called his regional neighbor a valued ally in the struggle to control terror.
"They're not a force for good, as far as we can see," Bush said, addressing reporters after two days of meetings with Karzai at the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Bush also waded into a dispute that has divided top Democratic contenders for president. Asked if the U.S. would strike against al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan without waiting for permission from the Pakistani government, the president did not explicitly rule out unilateral action.
"I'm confident that with actionable intelligence, we will be able to bring top al-Qaida to justice," Bush said, adding that the Pakistanis share an "interest that foreign fighters be brought to justice."
Bush invited the Afghan president to the Catoctin Mountain camp to renew commitments to fighting the Taliban and other terrorists.
The meetings were scheduled in advance of a top-level gathering later this week between the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the U.S. helped arrange.
While trying to present a united front against terrorism, Karzai and Bush appeared to differ sharply on the role Iran is playing in the Middle East.
In a CNN interview broadcast Sunday but recorded a day earlier, Karzai called Iran "a helper and a solution" in Afghanistan. The two nations, he said, had "very very good, very very close relations."
The U.S., however, is leading efforts to impose sanctions on Iran for its continuation of a nuclear program, and hawkish members of the Bush administration have been discussing the possibility of a military response, analysts say. Asked about Karzai's comments, Bush offered a more pessimistic view.
"They [Iran] are a destabilizing influence, wherever they are," said Bush.
Karzai avoided a confrontation with his host by ignoring the topic of Iran during a question-and-answer session with reporters.
The issue of a U.S. strike on Pakistan had its roots in exchanges over the past week between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they jostle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
After Clinton questioned his foreign-policy credentials, Obama delivered a speech last week in which he endorsed unilateral strikes against al-Qaida in Pakistan if that country's leader, Pervez Musharraf, failed to act. The comment was criticized as "very irresponsible" by Pakistan's foreign minister.
Karzai's meeting with Bush comes as he and Musharraf prepare for a joint conference, called a jirga, later this week. Many security experts believe that Osama bin Laden, if still alive, has made Pakistan his refuge, and some U.S. officials have questioned Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism.
"I hope very much that this jirga will bring to us what we need, which I think it will," Karzai said.
Karzai, who took office in 2001 with the backing of the U.S., came to Camp David with plenty of problems at home. An emboldened Taliban is holding 21 South Koreans hostage. Poppy production - used for heroin - continues at high levels. And Afghans are increasingly concerned about civilian casualties as U.S. and coalition forces battle the Taliban.
"I fully understand the angst, the agony and the sorrow that Afghan citizens feel when an innocent life is lost," Bush said. "I can assure the Afghan people, like I assured [Karzai], that we do everything that we can to protect the innocent, that our military operations are mindful that innocent life might be exposed to danger."
Karzai denied that the Taliban was a threat to his government, even as they make life difficult for Afghani citizens.
"They're not posing any threat to the institutions of Afghanistan or to the buildup of institutions of Afghanistan," he said. "It's a force that's defeated. It's a force that is frustrated. It's a force that is acting in cowardice by killing children going to school."
Bush did not address the hostage situation yesterday. But he and Karzai discussed it during two days of talks at Camp David, according to Gordon Johndroe, a White House National Security Council spokesman. The president is "urging that they be released," Johndroe said, and reiterated that the U.S. believes "there should be no quid pro quo" to secure freedom for the hostages.