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Bush Acknowledges Impact of Insurgents

But President Says He Is Confident Democracy Will Prevail in Iraq

By Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A01

President Bush sounded a sober tone on Iraq yesterday, acknowledging that anti-American insurgents are "having an effect" there and that U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces to secure their country have produced only "mixed" results.

Despite the obstacles, Bush said progress has been made in Iraq in the year since Saddam Hussein was captured, and he expressed continued confidence that the oil-rich nation will be transformed into a democratic beacon in the Middle East. Still, he warned, the road to democracy in Iraq is long and difficult and will not end with elections next month of a National Assembly to draft a new constitution.

President Bush said he does not expect the months ahead to be "trouble-free" in Iraq but "I'm confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward." (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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"My point is, the elections in January are just the beginning of a process, and it's important for the American people to understand that," Bush said in a morning news conference. Iraqi insurgents are trying to "disrupt the democratic process in any way they can," he added. "No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free. Yet I'm confident of the result. I'm confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward."

Bush's comments on Iraq came a day after a fresh spasm of violence left 66 dead in the country's holiest cities. Twin explosions Sunday in Najaf and Karbala renewed fears of escalating violence in the weeks leading up to the scheduled Jan. 30 national elections.

Meeting with reporters a day before departing for the holidays at Camp David and then his Texas ranch, Bush touched on a variety of thorny issues that will confront him when he returns in the new year to prepare for his second term. He warned of a "tough budget," continued his push for Congress to add personal savings accounts to Social Security, promised to appoint a panel to study ways to simplify the tax code and reiterated his pledge to seek immigration law changes that offer legal status to an estimated 10 million workers who are in the country illegally.

"We want our Border Patrol agents chasing crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work," Bush said. "And therefore, it makes sense to allow the good-hearted people who are coming here to do jobs that Americans won't do a legal way to do so."

At his second news conference since his Nov. 2 reelection victory, Bush offered expansive, if sometimes rambling, answers and seemed intent on avoiding being pinned down on upcoming policy fights. On issue after issue, he repeatedly declared that he had no illusions over what would be a hard job but did not want to "negotiate with myself," a phrase he repeated four times.

The 53-minute session came amid deepening skepticism among Americans about the administration's handling of the war in Iraq. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found solid majorities believe that the Iraq war is being handled poorly and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld should lose his job. Not only has Rumsfeld lost the confidence of many citizens, but he also has come under fire from Republican senators and other members of the Bush administration who accuse him of shortchanging troops in Iraq and appearing dismissive of their concerns.

Earlier this month, Rumsfeld appeared to shrug off a soldier's inquiry about the lack of protective armor for military vehicles in Iraq. "You go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time," Rumsfeld said.

Speaking on MSNBC's "Hardball" last night, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said he was startled by Rumsfeld's response. "I was very surprised that the soldier didn't have the armor, and I was very surprised at the answer," Armitage said, adding that Rumsfeld "is a bit of a lightning rod these days, and it must be hard to get up and go to work."

Bush, however, stood by Rumsfeld. "I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," Bush said. "I know how much he cares for the troops." Bush sidestepped a question about criticism directed at Rumsfeld for using a stamping machine to sign condolence letters to families of slain soldiers, saying he knew the defense secretary's "anguish" over the casualties in Iraq. "Sometimes, perhaps, his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military, and deeply about the grief that war causes," Bush said.

Bush said the United States will continue to rely on diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran and North Korea to abandon their suspected nuclear weapons programs. The United States is involved in six-way negotiations with North Korea and its regional neighbors over its nuclear arms program. The United States, meanwhile, has taken a back seat to France, Britain and Germany, which are in negotiations over Iran's nuclear intentions.

"We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran," Bush said. "In other words, we don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now, and we expect them to listen to those voices, and we're a part of the universal acclaim."

The emphasis on diplomacy marked a softer tone for the president, who recently escalated his rhetoric against Iran and North Korea, nations that, along with Iraq, he has called part of an "axis of evil." Still, Bush argued, the situation with Iran and North Korea is much different than it was before he made the decision to invade Iraq.

"Diplomacy had failed for 13 years in Iraq. As you might remember, and I'm sure you do, all the U.N. resolutions that were passed out of the United Nations, totally ignored by Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "And so diplomacy must be the first choice, and always the first choice, of an administration trying to solve an issue of, in this case, nuclear armament. And we'll continue to press on diplomacy."

Asked about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, Bush said: "If I had to guess, I would guess that Osama bin Laden is in a remote region on the Afghan-Pakistan border," he said. "But I don't have to guess at the damage we have done to his organization. Many of his senior operators have been killed or detained."

On other foreign issues, Bush warned Syria and Iran not to meddle in Iraq and promised to renew efforts to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians.

Continuing a theme he laid out at a White House economic conference last week, Bush depicted a Social Security system in crisis and in desperate need of dramatic revision. Democrats have complained that Bush has exaggerated the challenges facing Social Security and will ultimately have to reduce benefits or increase national debt to put his plan to create private investment accounts into effect.

"It's now in a precarious position," Bush said of Social Security. "And the question is whether or not our society has got the will to adjust. . . . I believe the will will be there, but I'm under no illusions. It's going to take hard work."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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