Bush criticised them for failing to push for democratic reforms.

In his annual State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Bush issued stern warnings to arch-foes Iran and Syria and, in a rare move, admonished close allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Iran “remains the world’s primary state sponsor of terror — pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve”, Mr Bush said.

“To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you,” he said.

The Islamic Republic of Iran accused him of ignorance.

“Mr Bush has forgotten that the great Iranian people, through the Islamic revolution 26 years ago, put an end to the dominant influence and presence of the United States in Iran,” foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.

Mr Bush was “closing his eyes to the realities of the Islamic republic with its deep-rooted freedom and democracy”.

A month ago President Bush said he could not rule out using force if Tehran failed to rein in its nuclear plans.

Syria was also riled, saying Bush should open a dialogue with Damascus instead of flexing its muscles.

“American officials need to be convinced that the pressure on Syria is futile and that a strengthening of dialogue is the only path,” Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah said.

“It is impossible to export freedom with tanks, planes and cannons,” said Mr Dakhlallah, whose country deploys around 14,000 troops in neighbouring Lebanon.

Washington has slapped sanctions on Damascus, accusing it of sponsoring international terrorism and turning a blind eye to anti-American insurgents crossing the border into neighbouring Iraq.

Mr Bush charged that “Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region”.

“We are applying, the Syrian Accountability Act and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom,” he said.

In Saudi Arabia, where the first round of landmark polls to elect municipal council members are due on February 10, a senior political representative expressed surprise.

“It is strange to utter such criticism as we head towards municipal elections in a week, and as the kingdom presses ahead with enhancing political participation,” said Abdul Aziz al-Fayez of the appointed consultative council.

“President Bush knows well that the process of reform needs time … (and) this cannot be determined by the presidents of other states, even if they are friends whose friendship we cherish,” said Mr Fayez.

In his speech President Bush said “Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future.”

And although he described Egypt as a “great and proud nation” that signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he attacked its stagnant democracy.

Cairo “can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East,” President Bush said.

There was no immediate reaction from Egypt, a country that receives some $US1.3 billion ($A1.68 billion) annually in US military assistance, the second highest in the world after Israel, in addition to around $US535 million ($A694.7 million) in economic aid.

Earlier this week Egypt detained Al-Ghad opposition party leader Ayman al-Nur on charges of falsifying official documents, prompting sharp criticism from the United States.

“He is one of Egypt’s most prominent opposition leaders and the arrest, in our mind, raises questions about the outlook for democratic process in Egypt,” US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Mr Nur was arrested a week after he had met in Cairo with former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who heads a US body to promote democracy.

The State of the Union address also provoked a reaction on the domestic front regarding President Bush’s plans to overhaul the government-run Social Security pension program.

In his address, President Bush urged the US Congress to help change the program, which he proposes to partially privatise. The controversial proposal has polarised lawmakers.

President Bush also called for fiscal restraint ahead of unveiling his 2006 budget on Monday, when he is expected to propose a virtual freeze on discretionary spending, excluding defence and homeland security.

The president’s remarks were interrupted numerous times by thunderous cheers and applause from Republican lawmakers, while the Democratic ranks remained in stony silence and in some cases, as when Bush rolled out his pension program, even heckled and shouted “No! No!”

In their response to Mr Bush’s speech, top Democratic lawmakers said Mr Bush was on the wrong track in his proposal to reform the pension system, and inadequate in his planning for Iraq.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Mr Bush’s plan to privatise social security was “dangerous” because it would add another two trillion dollars on the already record high $US4.3 trillion national debt. “That’s an immoral burden to place on the backs of the next generation,” he added.

Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, tackled President Bush’s Iraq policy: “We have never heard a clear plan from this administration for ending our presence in Iraq. And we did not hear one tonight.”

Leading US dailies on Thursday praised President Bush for setting ambitious foreign and domestic goals, but also agreed that his State of the Union speech did not fully address some issues and omitted other more important ones.

While the speech will be remembered for President Bush’s “call to stay the course in Iraq and change the course of Social Security,” wrote The New York Times, “on both counts, Mr Bush fudged the most critical points.”

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