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Bush raps Obama pledge to meet hostile leaders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday sharply criticized Democratic front-runner Barack Obama’s pledge to meet Cuban leader Raul Castro without preconditions, leaping squarely into the race to succeed him.

“I’m not suggesting there’s never a time to talk, but I’m suggesting now is not the time ... to talk with Raul Castro,” Bush told a White House news conference.

It was the first major instance of Bush injecting himself into the presidential race to choose who will succeed him in the November election, with his unpopular Iraq war a major debating point on the campaign trail.

His comments also reflected how closely he is watching the campaign and how eager he is to guard his legacy. He has yet to formally endorse the Republican front-runner, Arizona Sen. John McCain, but is expected to do so.

Bush also appeared to join McCain in rebuking Obama for his remarks about Iraq at a Tuesday night debate.

Obama said during the debate with rival Hillary Clinton in Ohio that once he followed through on his pledge to speedily withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, he might have to send troops back in if al Qaeda were to form a base there.

McCain on Wednesday all but called Obama naive for making the comment, saying al Qaeda was already in Iraq, prompting Obama to blame Bush and McCain for al Qaeda being there.

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“I believe Sen. Obama better stay focused on his campaign with Sen. Clinton, neither of whom has secured their party’s nomination yet,” Bush said.

Obama has repeatedly said he would be willing to meet without preconditions with leaders of such hostile nations as Cuba and Iran, saying current U.S. policy is not working and it is time for a fresh look at ways to improve relations.

Obama’s rejection of what he calls conventional thinking in Washington has put him on the cusp of seizing the Democratic nomination from Clinton, long considered the inevitable nominee.

The 46-year-old Obama, the Illinois senator who would be America’s first black president, has come from way back in the polls in Texas and Ohio, two big states that vote next Tuesday. Victories there would put him in a commanding position.

Bush has steadfastly refused to meet leaders of hostile nations, saying it would send the wrong message to the world.

The United States has for decades rejected relations with the communist government in Cuba and is locked in a test of wills with Iran over concerns Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) gestures as he speaks at a rally in Austin, Texas February 28, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Asked at the news conference about Obama’s position on meeting leaders of Cuba and Iran, Bush said it would be a mistake to hold talks with them.

“I just remind people that the decisions of the U.S. president to have discussions with certain international figures can be extremely counterproductive. It can send chilling signals and messages to our allies. It can send confusion about our foreign policy,” he said.

He said the actions of Raul Castro, brother of ailing former President Fidel Castro, amount to “nothing more than the extension of what his brother did, which was to ruin an island and imprison people because of their beliefs.”

His position was similar to that of New York Sen. Clinton, who argued at a debate with Obama last week in Texas that there should be no talks with Cuba until it makes progress on releasing political prisoners and improving human rights.

“The idea of embracing a leader who has done this without any attempt on his part to, you know, release prisoners and free their society would be counterproductive and send the wrong signal,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Andy Sullivan and John Whitesides; editing by David Wiessler)

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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