President Bush pointedly acknowledged Monday that U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over their country's security, and cautioned that next month's elections there are only the beginning of a long process toward democracy.
"I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free," Bush said at a year-end news conference in which he signaled tough spending cuts to come and declined to offer specific solutions to Social Security's solvency.
Bush also gave a fresh vote of confidence to embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "He's doing a really fine job," the president said.
The 55-minute session, the 17th solo news conference of his presidency, was part of Bush's effort to seize the momentum from his re-election victory and push several ambitious domestic and foreign policy priorities in his second term.
On Iraq, Bush accused insurgents there of trying to "disrupt the democratic process" and urged the American people to remain patient well beyond the Jan. 30 elections as Iraqis craft a constitution and strengthen their security forces.
"The elections in January are the beginning of a process and it is important for the American people to understand that," he said.
Questions about troop strength
Critics have raised questions about whether enough U.S. troops are in Iraq to bring security for the elections. More than 1,300 American troops have died since the war began in March 2003. Also, soldiers have complained about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.
Bush said "I would call the results mixed" on a U.S. effort to put Iraqi security in the hands of its own people.
"There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield — that is unacceptable," he said. "... We are under no illusion that this Iraqi force is not ready to fight in toto."
Essential to the American strategy for withdrawing its troops from Iraq is the effort to train Iraqi forces for security and combat. But doubts have been raised from several quarters about the effectiveness of the effort and the reliability of Iraqi security forces.
On other matters, Bush:
- Defended his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has had disagreements over the war on terror and, more recently, over the disputed elections in Ukraine. U.S. and Soviet officials said Monday that Bush and Putin would meet in Slovakia on Feb. 24 as part of an effort to improve U.S. relations with European nations.
- Denied that his failed nomination of former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik to be the Homeland Security secretary reflected a lackadaisical vetting process by the White House. "In retrospect he made the right decision to pull his name down," Bush said of Kerik’s withdrawal over failure to pay all the required taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper who may have been in the country illegally."The lesson learned is continue to vet and ask questions."
- Didn't tip his hand about who might be nominated to be the new national intelligence director — a post created by the largest overhaul of U.S. intellience-gathering in a half century that Bush signed into law last week.