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Bush: Iran's seizure of Brits 'inexcusable'

He wades into the crisis and says the hostages must be returned.

By WASHINGTON POST
Published April 1, 2007


CAMP DAVID, Md. - President Bush condemned Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines Saturday as "inexcusable behavior" and demanded that the "hostages" be released, weighing in for the first time as the situation escalates into a sustained confrontation with Tehran.

Bush said the sailors had been operating legally in Iraqi territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, as the British have insisted, and he offered support for British Prime Minister Tony Blair's efforts "to solve this peacefully."

But he rejected any "quid pro quo" trade of Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq, and he ducked a question about whether military force would be justified to free the captured sailors.

"The Iranians must give back the hostages," Bush said at Camp David following a meeting with visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his own first public comments on the standoff Saturday, accusing Britain of arrogance and saying it should not have "shouted in different international councils," according to Iranian state radio. "This is not the legal and logical way" to act.

Britain, meanwhile, appeared to be easing its stance, emphasizing its desire to talk with Iran about what it termed a regrettable situation. "We continue to express our willingness to engage in dialogue and discussions with Iran," said Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

The sailors, 14 men and one woman, were returning from inspecting a cargo ship for possible smuggling when Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval units seized them March 23.

Tehran has released footage and letters that Iran says are confessions that the 15 entered Iranian waters. Britain has released satellite data to buttress its case that they were in Iraqi waters.

The United States had tried to keep a low profile and defer to Blair, apparently to avoid inserting the fraught U.S.-Iranian relationship into the situation. But some U.S. and British officials believe the capture may have been a retaliation for the capture of Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives by U.S. forces in Iraq, or for the U.S.-led effort at the United Nations to sanction Iran for its nuclear program.

Fast Facts:

 

Revolutionary Guards are at heart of crisis

Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the elite unit whose naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines 10 days ago, have greater power today than at any point since the 1979 Iranian revolution's early days, say U.S. officials and Iran experts.

Politics, economy: One of its veterans, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became Iran's leader in 2005. The force and a network of current and ex-commanders have moved into Iran's oil and gas business, won major government construction contracts and scored lucrative franchises such as Mercedes-Benz dealerships.

Military: The Guards' special forces unit is operating deep in Iraq, providing militias with deadly roadside explosives used against American troops, U.S. officials say. The Guards supplied missiles used by Hezbollah against Israel. They play the largest role in Iran's ambitious military industries, including attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles, according to an impending book by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Affairs.

Rise to power: The Guards gained stature during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, when it fought some of the toughest battles. That generation has now come of leadership age.