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Bush singles out Iran as the `primary state sponsor of terror'

GEORGE BUSH'S State of the Union address, the first of his second term, was a now familiar mix - the litany of sweeping goals at home and abroad, the inconvenient truths glossed over or omitted, the whole presented with that quite astonishing self-belief.

On the domestic front, Mr Bush set out in some detail for the first time his plans to part-privatise social security - the biggest overhaul of America's most-venerated welfare programme since it was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt exactly 70 years ago.

Abroad, he was more specific on the grand theme of spreading freedom across the Middle East, first set out in his inaugural address last month. He chastised Iran as the "primary state sponsor of terror" and promised Iranian reformists the backing of the US: "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."

Syria was given a similar stern warning to "end all support for terror and open the door for freedom". Mr Bush also urged Egypt and Saudi Arabia - US allies which have previously had a virtual free pass on their internal repression - to do more to foster democracy.

As usual, the President was well served by his speech writers and stage managers of ceremony. State of the Union addresses now regularly use special presidential guests to illustrate grand themes. But this year's was especially emotional, the tearful embrace in the VIP gallery between the parents of a US Marine killed in Iraq, and an Iraqi woman who took part in Sunday's election, 11 years after her own father was murdered by Saddam Hussein's intelligence services.

In the audience below, many Republican senators and congressmen pointed their fingers, carrying the purple ink stains used to mark Iraqis when they cast their vote at the weekend.

But now comes the hard part for Mr Bush - to bridge the gap between soaring rhetoric and awkward realities that do not conform with the grand vision, and the race to turn proposals into law within 18 months, before the 2006 mid-term election campaign. After that, even this most confident and determined of presidents will be treated as a lame duck.

Yesterday, Mr Bush took his social security proposals on the road, in a swing that takes him to North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Arkansas and Florida - by no coincidence all states he carried in last November's election, and where Republicans believe they can unseat incumbent Democratic senators.

But he has a tough sell on his hands. On Wednesday he said almost nothing about how the scheme will be financed, and the consequences for the federal budget deficit, already set to hit $427bn (pounds 227bn) in 2005, according to the White House.

The public is highly wary, while Democrats almost to a man are against the proposals, seen as a crude effort to extend Mr Bush's conservative, ideologically driven economic agenda. In his response to Mr Bush, Harry Reid, leader of the 44 Democrats in the Senate, called the scheme "social security roulette," that would add $2 trillion to the national debt.

Not a few Republicans also have reservations, as shown by the half dozen moderates among the party's 55 senators who were conspicuously slow to applaud when Mr Bush outlined his privatisation plan.

In the Senate, moreover, "nothing gets done that's not bipartisan," warned Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee which will deal with social security reform - a reference to the 60-vote majority needed to end a senate filibuster.

Similar pointed questioning, this time on Mr Bush's foreign policy awaits his new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who left yesterday for a week-long visit to Europe and the Middle East. The trip, a fortnight before Mr Bush travels to Europe, is billed as a fence-mending exercise after the acute trans-atlantic strains over Iraq.

Instead, Ms Rice will be closely questioned about the President's bellicose language towards Syria and Iran - just when the EU is engaged in delicate talks over Teheran's suspected nuclear programme.

For all the White House talk of repairing ties with traditional allies, Europe was mentioned but once in the 55-minute speech, and China, Russia and Africa not at all. The foreign policy focus of the second Bush administration, as for the first, will be the Middle East. The huge US trade deficits and the sagging dollar, which could upset every plan, were passed over.

But Mr Bush's lofty talk could not hide the practical problems, most notably how the US can make good on its warnings to Syria and Iran when its overstretched military struggles to contain Iraq.

Even Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defence and a prime architect of the 2003 invasion, told a congressional committee yesterday that despite the Iraqi election, violence was likely to continue for months.