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Bush Hits 'Axis Of Evil' In Final News Conference

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at his final press conference.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President George W. Bush said that North Korea and Iran, part of what he once branded an "axis of evil," remained dangerous but the biggest threat facing his successor Barack Obama was another terrorist attack on the United States.

At a farewell news conference in which he tried to burnish a troubled foreign-policy legacy, Bush denied that U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, criticized by human rights groups, had damaged the United States' moral standing in the world.

He insisted his failed bid to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his final year in office had not been completely in vain, despite the latest crisis in the Gaza Strip, which he blamed squarely on the Islamist group Hamas.

Bush, speaking at the White House eight days before handing over to Obama, staunchly defended his record but was at times uncharacteristically reflective.

He admitted having regrets that weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion. Presence of such weapons was the prime justification for overthrowing President Saddam Hussein.

But Bush held the line against North Korea and Iran, whose nuclear standoffs with the West have been major challenges for his administration. "North Korea's still a problem," he said when asked about the threats Obama will face. "So they're still dangerous and Iran is still dangerous."

"In order to advance our relations with North Korea, the North Korean government must honor the commitments it made to allow for strong verification measures to be in place to ensure that they do not develop a highly enriched uranium program," Bush said.

Six-party talks with North Korea over dismantling its nuclear arms programs have stalled and little movement is expected before a new U.S. administration. Obama has promised his administration will have direct talks with America's foes, in contrast to Bush's strategy of diplomatic isolation.

Axis Of Evil

Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, called Pyongyang and Tehran -- along with Iraq, then under dictator Saddam Hussein -- an "axis of evil." He never backed away from the accusation, which came to epitomize what critics called his administration's "cowboy diplomacy."

Bush said on January 12 the most urgent security challenge Obama will face is preventing another attack on the United States like those on September 11, 2001.

"There's still an enemy out there that would like to inflict damage on America -- Americans. And that'll be the major threat," Bush said. "But I wish him all the best.... The stakes are high."

Bush has said that the absence of a second attack since 9/11 is one of his administration's biggest achievements.

He also touted security gains in Iraq as vindication for a U.S. troop buildup he ordered there at a time of rampant sectarian violence in 2007.

"That part of history is certain, and the situation did change," Bush said. "Now the question is, in the long run, will this democracy survive?"

The war undercut U.S. credibility abroad and contributed to a resounding victory by Obama, a Democrat, against John McCain, nominee of Bush's Republican party, in the November election.

Asked whether harsh treatment of terrorism suspects and going to war in Iraq without UN approval had hurt the U.S. image abroad, Bush said, "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged."

He acknowledged that the U.S. military detentions at Guantanamo had "created controversies."

But he said that "when it came time for those countries that were criticizing America to take...some of those detainees, they weren't willing to help out." Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo.

Bush, who leaves with low public-approval ratings at home, dismissed any concerns about his unpopularity overseas.

"In certain quarters in Europe, you can be popular by blaming every Middle Eastern problem on Israel," Bush said. "Or you can be popular by joining the International Criminal Court. I guess I could have been popular by accepting Kyoto [Protocol on climate change], which I felt was a flawed treaty," he said.