US President George W. Bush issued a strident new warning to Iran and Syria on Monday, accusing them of harboring terrorists and hinting at the consequences.
"This behavior is completely unacceptable," the president said during a joint press conference at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
"And states that continue to harbor terrorists will be held completely accountable ... Supporting terrorists undermines prospects for peace in the Middle East and betrays the true interests of the Palestinian state."
While the president has referred to Syria and Iran in this way in the past, the timing of yesterday's remarks is seen as a warning to the two countries not to undermine the fragile peace process under way in the Middle East.
He went on to say that terrorism was the greatest obstruction to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and talked of "the hardships of the Palestinian people."
The comments come against a background of growing American disquiet about the continuing US casualties in Iraq.
During Berlusconi's visit, the US president has thanked him for being part of the "coalition of the willing" during the war in Iraq.
Before a casual chicken lunch on the ranch, the president poured praise on a smiling Berlusconi. "Defending freedom requires cost and sacrifice. The United States is grateful for Italy's willingness to bear the burdens with us," he said.
It was the second time within a week that Bush had praised a visiting beleaguered ally: it followed Tony Blair's trip to Washington.
The president's remarks came in the wake of claims by the Israeli government yesterday that Iran was trying to build a nuclear weapon which would pose a significant international threat.
Iran immediately denied the allegations, saying it considered that developing nuclear weapons would imperil its own safety.
It repeated the assertion that its nuclear developments were aimed at meeting the country's growing energy needs and were in no way a threat to the region.
The Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, claimed in Brussels yesterday that Tehran had refused to agree to more stringent nuclear inspections.
"Iran now is trying to do everything to have a nuclear weapon and that is threatening not only the Middle East, it is threatening Europe, the southern part of Russia," he said. "I think the EU should take a key role in the last efforts to prevent them from having this ability."