RENO, Nev. -- President Bush warned yesterday that the Middle East faces a bleak future if the United States fails in Iraq, evoking a "dark vision" of terrorist havens, disrupted energy supplies and a regional arms race triggered by a nuclear-armed Iran.
"The region would be dramatically transformed," Bush said in a speech to the American Legion's national convention, "in a way that could imperil the civilized world."
In muscular language, Bush noted recent evidence of Iranian weapons in Iraq and renewed his demand that the Iranian leadership halt support for attacks on U.S. troops.
"Until it does, I will take the actions necessary to protect troops," he said. "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities."
The speech was the second Bush has delivered in a week seeking to lay out his arguments for pursuing the course he has set in Iraq before September, when Congress will return to renew debate on the war and funding for military operations.
Deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said yesterday that Bush was not enunciating a new policy toward Iran or foreshadowing a military operation in Iran, which borders Iraq. He cautioned reporters not to "read too much into" the president's remarks. However, Bush did step up his rhetoric in the speech, renewing his emphasis on the threat that Iran could become a nuclear power and referring to Iran 22 times in the 45-minute speech.
The president said U.S.-led forces had seized 240 mm rockets made in Iran that were "provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents" and that attacks with Iranian-supplied munitions had increased recently.
"The Iranian regime must halt these actions," Bush said.
In describing the chaos that he said could engulf the Middle East if U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq, Bush used some of his starkest language yet.
"Extremists would control a key part of the world's energy supply, could blackmail and sabotage the global economy," he said. "They could use billions of dollars of oil revenues to buy weapons and pursue their deadly ambitions."
Bush repeated his argument that the increase in U.S. troops, from roughly 130,000 to 160,000, had been completed barely two months ago and should be given time to work. He said the buildup has led to increased security and successes in displacing operatives of al-Qaida in provinces where insurgents were once dominant.
"The momentum is now on our side," he said.
Noting the limited success at achieving political reconciliation among Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other groups, Bush said that in the midst of security challenges, Iraqi leaders "are being asked to resolve political issues as complex and emotional as the struggle for civil rights in our own country."
The Bush administration is under congressional mandate to deliver a progress report on the war to Congress by Sept. 15, and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to testify Sept. 11 and 12.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said yesterday that Bush had "missed the mark yet again." Reid said the country agrees on the need to fight extremists and help Iraq, but Bush was pursuing "a flawed strategy" that put troops in the midst of a civil war, while it "failed to deliver the political solution necessary for Iraq's stability that he promised."
James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.