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Bush Urges Free Elections in Pakistan

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Hear NPR's David Greene

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

President Bush held a news conference at the White House this morning, continuing what has become an annual tradition, having the last word on a wide range of topics before heading to Texas for his August vacation.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Mr. Bush rejected a tax increase to pay for the bridge repairs across the country. He addressed the volatile housing market, dismissing any grant program to bill out homeowners hit hard by foreclosure.

BRAND: But much of the news conference was focused on foreign policy, the disappointing lack of progress in Iraq, the political instability in Pakistan, and what he called Iran's destabilizing influence in the Middle East.

Joining us now is NPR White House correspondent David Greene. Hi, David.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: He was asked also about Pakistan's President Musharraf and the political battles that he is facing in his country. Tell us a bit about that.

GREENE: Yeah. Musharraf is in trouble. There's a lot of political unrest in Pakistan right now. There have been attacks from Islamist groups and a lot of doubts about whether Musharraf has control of his country. There's been talk about the possibility he might even declare a national emergency, which his government has said is not going to be the case. But President Bush was asked whether he has confidence in Musharraf in going after terrorism targets within Pakistan. And the president said that he does see eye-to-eye on that subject. Here's a bit of what Mr. Bush had to say.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: He shares the same concern about radicals and extremists as I do, and as the American people do. So my focus, in terms of the domestic scene there, is that he have a free and fair election.

BRAND: So a free and fair election? What do you make of that?

GREENE: Well, it was a little bit of a shot at Musharraf. I wouldn't say it was too bold in public. But we know that U.S. officials are really putting some pressure on Musharraf, who is of course both the military leader and the president of the country, which is always a concern to U.S. officials. And a gentle reminder, publicly, that Musharraf should hold free and fair elections when those elections do likely come up later on this year.

BRAND: Mm-hmm. Another concern for the president is Iran. And is the president worried about meetings between Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week and Iran's president?

GREENE: It was sort of a funny moment. The president insists he's not worried. And he said, you know, whenever two world leaders get together, there will always be these, you know, warm photo ops in public. But it's certainly a concern and has been among U.S. officials - Maliki's relationship. He's a Shiite and his relationship with the Shiite leadership in Iran, and his relationship with President Ahmadinejad in Iran. So the fact that those two leaders are getting together, Mr. Bush said he's confident that Maliki will put pressure on Iran not to contribute to the violence within Iraq, but I think U.S. officials are very worried about whether Maliki is putting enough pressure on their neighbors.

BRAND: Hmm. And he was asked a number of times about Maliki and about the troop surge, the American troop surge, and whether or not it's working. In fact, you, David, you had the last question on this topic.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, I asked the president about the general subject of accountability and whether if you look at his decision to commute the prison sentence of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, and about whether the performance of Iraqi leaders - whether he has really held people accountable as president of the United States.

And I added the subject of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who of course, there's been a lot of question about his leadership, and whether the president feels like he has held people who work for him to account. Here's a bit of his answer.

Pres. BUSH: There's no proof of wrong - why would I hold somebody accountable who has done nothing wrong? I mean, frankly, I think that's a typical Washington, D.C. assumption, not to be accusatory. I know you're a kind, open-minded fellow, but you suggested holding the attorney general accountable for something he did wrong.

GREENE: So he says I'm a kind and open-minded fellow. I'm not sure he loved the question though. But the president took his answer away from Gonzales and later much more towards Iraq, which is a subject he often likes to end news conferences on. And he really filibustered for a while, talking about, again, that he believes this is an ideological struggle and that it's - it is worth, you know, pushing the Iraqi government and giving the Iraqi government some time to come together. So it didn't necessarily answer the question directly, but an interesting moment.

BRAND: All right. NPR White House correspondent David Greene. Thank you.

GREENE: Thank you, Madeleine.

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