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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby must begin serving his 2 1/2-year prison sentence while he appeals his perjury conviction, a U.S. judge ruled on Thursday.
Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, will have to report to prison in six to eight weeks unless his lawyers persuade an appeals court to let him remain free.
Conservatives have pressured President George W. Bush to pardon Libby before he serves any time in prison and Thursday's decision could increase that pressure. But a White House spokesman said the president is not going to intervene for now.
Libby was found guilty in March of obstructing an investigation into who blew the cover of a CIA analyst whose husband criticized the Iraq war.
Libby's lawyers told U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton that he should remain free because his verdict might be overturned during the appeals process.
They plan to argue on appeal that the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was improperly appointed and that Walton should not have excluded witnesses and classified material Libby had hoped to use in his defense.
Walton, however, said they were unlikely to prevail on those issues, and added that he could not overlook the overwhelming evidence of Libby's guilt.
"Everybody is accountable under the laws of the United States no matter who you are, and therefore if you work in the White House you're just as obligated to comply with the law as anybody else," Walton said.
The process of appealing the conviction could last until nearly the end of Bush's term in a year and a half.
"Scooter Libby still has the right to appeal, and therefore the president will continue not to intervene in the judicial process. The president feels terribly for Scooter, his wife and their young children, and all that they're going through," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Cheney's office declined to comment beyond last week's statement that he was "deeply saddened by this tragedy."
Libby's case grew out of a high-profile investigation into the leak of CIA analyst Valerie Plame's identity after her husband emerged as an early critic of the invasion of Iraq.
Plame has said the unmasking destroyed her career and was done in retaliation after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to build its case for the Iraq war.
Nobody was charged with blowing Plame's cover, but Libby was found guilty of obstruction of justice, making false statements to the FBI and two counts of perjury. He was found not guilty on one charge of making false statements.
The 30-month sentence Walton imposed last week was substantially higher than the 15 to 21 months recommended by the probation office. Walton also imposed a fine of $250,000 and two years probation.
Walton said he has received harassing phone calls and letters in the wake of that sentence, some threatening his family.
A dozen legal scholars told Walton last week that Libby had a chance of winning his appeal, bolstering his argument to remain free.
Walton said he was less than impressed with their reasoning.
"They're very bright people, no question, but the submission is not something I would expect from a first-year law student," he said.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky