Bush concedes success in Iraq effort is mixed

Nation unready to protect its security, president says

Insurgents' methods are effective

Bush defends Rumsfeld as `caring, doing fine job'

December 21, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A day after blasts killed dozens of civilians in Iraq, President Bush acknowledged yesterday that efforts to put Iraqis in charge of their country's security have brought "mixed" results and that insurgents are using bloodshed successfully as a propaganda tool to try to derail national elections set for next month.

Bush also offered strong support for one of the architects of his Iraq policy - embattled Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld - calling him "a caring fellow" who has done "a really fine job."

On a day when newspapers' front pages displayed photos of carnage from Iraq - more than 65 people killed in a wave of violence Sunday directed mostly at Shiite Muslims - the president said, "The American people are taking a look at Iraq and wondering whether the Iraqis are going to be able to fight off these bombers and killers, and our objective is to give them the tools and the training necessary to do so."

"No question about it, the bombers are having an effect," Bush said at a year-end news conference. But he insisted elections would take place as scheduled on Jan. 30 and serve as the first step on a bumpy path to democracy.

"No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free," Bush said, taking questions for nearly an hour at the White House. "Yet, I am confident of the result. I'm confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward, and Iraq will be a democracy that reflects the values and traditions of its people."

Bush propped up Rumsfeld, who has been criticized by some Republican lawmakers recently for failing to provide adequate equipment for troops in Iraq. Rumsfeld also came under fire last week for using a machine to place his signature on condolence letters to families of dead soldiers. He said he will now personally sign the letters.

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," Bush said. "I know how much he cares for the troops." He called Rumsfeld "a good, decent man" and a "caring fellow."

"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.

Asked pointedly what is "going wrong" in Iraq, and about poll numbers showing fewer Americans confident in a successful conclusion there, Bush pointed to challenges in training Iraqi security forces and making them responsible for patrolling the country.

"There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield." Unless that stops, Bush said, "Iraq will never secure itself."

Despite the continuing violence, Bush insisted that progress is being made in Iraq.

"Life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein," he said. "There are very hopeful signs."

Asked about the nuclear threat from Iran, he retreated from harsh language he used early in his first term, when he lumped Iran with North Korea and Iraq, calling the three countries an "axis of evil" that the United States needed to confront.

Yesterday, the president spoke about limits to American capabilities in dealing with Iran. After years of imposing sanctions, he said, the United States lacks the ability to exert further economic pressure on Tehran.

"We're relying upon others - because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran - to send a message," Bush said, referring to allies who have stronger ties to Iran. "We don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now, and we expect them to listen to those voices."

Bush also addressed criticism that during his first term he was not engaged enough to peaceably settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Borrowing a metaphor used by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to describe working for Middle East peace, Bush said he has "been in the diplomatic dental chair for four years." But he said he never held out hope for progress with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in power.

"Peace would never happen so long as the interlocutor in the peace process was not really dedicated to peace," Bush said of Arafat, who died last month. With the Palestinians preparing for elections next month, Bush said, "We've got a good chance" for progress.

"I know the world is wondering whether or not this is just empty rhetoric," he said. "The answer is, now is the time to move the process forward."

For the first time, Bush threw his backing behind a conference that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to hold in February to assist Palestinians with reforms.

The president was passionate as he spoke about changing the nation's immigration laws, an idea he has offered in the face of major opposition from conservatives in his own party. Bush wants reforms that would allow illegal immigrants to gain temporary worker status if they want to hold a job in the United States.

"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," Bush said. "It's a compassionate way to treat people who come to our country. It recognizes the reality of the world in which we live."

With his re-election behind him and a holiday vacation at Camp David and at his Texas ranch about to start, Bush seemed relaxed and more reflective than he usually does in news conferences.

Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

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