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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush pledged Thursday to work with allies to strengthen sanctions on Iran after a U.N. watchdog agency reported that Tehran was accelerating its nuclear enrichment program in defiance of international demands.
"The world has spoken and said ... no nuclear weapons programs. And yet they're constantly ignoring the demands," Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference. The ratcheting up of rhetoric against Iran came just days before U.S. and Iranian diplomats were to meet in Baghdad to discuss ways of stabilizing Iraq.
At his first full news conference since April 3, Bush also expressed satisfaction with legislation finally headed toward House and Senate approval that would pay for his recent troop build up in Iraq -- without strings that Democrats initially wanted to attach. He predicted "heavy fighting" in the months ahead in Iraq with both U.S. and Iraqi casualties, saying this summer would be a "critical time" for the new U.S. strategy, which includes the build up.
On Iran, the president said he had directed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work with European partners to "develop further sanctions." He said he would also soon discuss the matter with U.N. Security Council members Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Iran's leaders "continue to be defiant as to the demands of the free world," Bush said. "My view is that we need to strengthen our sanction regime." The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on Wednesday accused Iran of accelerating its uranium enrichment program despite international demands that it shut it down. The U.S. has moved two aircraft carriers and seven other ships into the Persian Gulf in a show of force.
And Iran has been increasing its detention of American citizens, including the jailing of a 67-year-old Iranian-American scholar, Haleh Esfandiari, who had been in Iran to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. "Obviously, to the extent that these people are picking up innocent Americans, it's unacceptable," Bush said. "And we've made it very clear to the Iranian government that the detention of good, decent American souls who are there to, you know, be beneficial citizens, is not acceptable behavior."
The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in December for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment and modestly increased them in March after Tehran stepped up the program, which can produce nuclear weapons. Iran reacted by giving U.N. inspectors less access to its nuclear facilities.
On Monday in Baghdad, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker will meet with his Iranian counterpart in a session designed to focus solely on a way forward in Iraq. It is to be one of the few such meetings since formal relations between the United States and Iran were frozen in 1980 in the hostage crisis.
On Iraq, the president said that the war spending bill, being voted on in both the House and Senate on Thursday, "reflects a consensus that the Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice."
He noted that the legislation contained various goals for Iraqi progress and said "meeting these benchmarks will be difficult; it's going to be hard for this young government." Bush said the measure would help to put pressure on the Iraqi government to perform better. Bush said the last five brigades -- about 15,000 troops -- of his buildup are scheduled to arrive in Baghdad next month. "We are going to expect heavy fighting in the next weeks and months and we can expect American and Iraqi casualties," Bush said. "We will stay on the offense," he added, repeating a favorite refrain: "It's better to fight them there than to fight them here."
The president also said that the strategy he is now following includes many of the recommendations issued last December by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana -- recommendations at first generally ignored by the administration.
Meanwhile, Bush plugged the immigration proposal that his administration negotiated with Senate leaders of both parties. The legislation faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, let alone the House. "It's a difficult piece of legislation and those who are looking to find fault with this bill will always be able to find something. But if you're serious about securing our borders, and bringing millions of illegal immigrants in this country out of the shadows, this bipartisan bill is the best opportunity to move forward," he said.
Still, Republicans and Democrats placed strict new conditions on the immigration measure on Wednesday, voting overwhelmingly to slash the number of foreign workers who could come to the U.S. on temporary visas, capping the guest-worker program at 200,000 a year. On other topics, the president: -- Reiterated his confidence in his embattled attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. He said the Justice Department was undertaking "an exhaustive investigation" into issues such as whether politics played an improper role in decisions at the Justice Department. "And if there's wrongdoing, it will be taken of," he said. --Said the U.S. is making it clear to China that the gaping U.S. trade deficit with that nation must be addressed. The U.S. is "watching very carefully" whether Beijing will strengthen the value of its own currency, a move that could ease the trade imbalance. "This is a complex relationship. There's areas where there's friction, and we just got to work through the friction," Bush said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)