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Bush targets election year economic woes

WASHINGTON, July 16 – US President George W. Bush, targeting election-year fears of an economic meltdown, urged lawmakers Tuesday to help battle soaring energy costs and shore up the "basically sound" US banking system.

"The bottom line is this: We\’re going through a tough time," Bush said at his first press conference since April, but he stressed that voters "can have confidence in the long-term foundation of our economy."

With just over 100 days before the November election and less than 200 before his term ends, Bush tackled the pocketbook worries that US voters say top their list of concerns, even above the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think the system basically is sound, I truly do. I understand there\’s a lot of nervousness, but the economy\’s growing, productivity\’s high, trade\’s up, people are working (although) it\’s not as good as we\’d like," he said.

Bush\’s Democratic foes have ramped up their attacks on his economic policies and rejected his call Monday to lift a ban on offshore drilling, noting that step is unlikely to reduce gasoline prices in the short term.

"There is no immediate fix. This took us a while to get into this problem. There is no short-term solution," he said.

With global shares tumbling and anxiety in the banking and mortgage sectors, the unpopular president urged the US Congress to act quickly on his plan to shore up crisis-hit housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Democrats later urged the White House and Republicans to join them in crafting a second economic stimulus package, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying the first wave of tax rebate checks and other measures was not sufficient.

"It certainly is not enough to offset the rising prices in gasoline, in food, in fuel, in health care, in education, and other rising costs while the purchasing power of Americans’ income is going down," she said.

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Asked about such a plan before the announcement, Bush said lawmakers should let the first package "run its course" but did not rule out another wave of aid, saying "we\’re always open-minded."

In a veiled swipe at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Bush rejected "artificial" timetables for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, and urged him to "listen carefully" to top US commanders and diplomats during his pending trip there.

Asked about Obama\’s charges that he foolishly diverted resources from the war in Afghanistan to invade Iraq, Bush said both were now equally important and that neither could be allowed to become a "safe haven" for terrorists.

"We are surging troops in Afghanistan," said Bush, who vowed to press Pakistan\’s new prime minister, due here July 28, on battling extremists blamed for bloody cross-border attacks and crushing a resurgent Al-Qaeda along the remote frontier.

"Some extremists are coming out of parts of Pakistan into Afghanistan. And that\’s troubling to us, it\’s troubling to Afghanistan, and it should be troubling to Pakistan," he said.

One day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed Pakistan\’s intelligence services for a series of deadly attacks, Bush promised "we\’ll investigate his charge." Islamabad denies any such role.

Bush said he still hoped to reach a deal with Iraq to set the rules for the US troops presence, but for the first time suggested the United Nations mandate that the accord would replace may need to be renewed before it expires at year\’s end.

"There must be authorities to operate, as well as protections for our troops. We\’re in the process of negotiating that," he said, adding it needs to get done "unless, of course, the UN mandate is extended."

Bush also said he was "displeased" with China and Russia for vetoing new UN sanctions on top Zimbabwean officials and their relatives, and said he was considering new US sanctions.

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The US president, who has opposed the International Criminal Court, said he would wait to see how an ICC prosecutor\’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir "plays out."

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