With violence spreading, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested parts of Iraq might have to be excluded from elections in January.
Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, standing in the Rose Garden under a bright sun, agreed Thursday that Iraq is making steady progress despite bombings, beheadings and violence that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Americans.
"On television sets around the world we see acts of violence yet in most of Iraq, children are about to go back to school, parents are going back to work and new businesses are being opened," Mr. Bush said.
Allawi said 14 or 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe."
Rumsfeld, at a Senate committee, was asked how elections could be held if Fallujah and other restive cities remained in revolt in when U.N.-supervised elections are to be held nationwide.
"Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country — in some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," Rumsfeld said. "So be it. Nothing's perfect in life. You have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet."
Phil Singer, a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said Rumsfeld's comments were at odds with Mr. Bush's own upbeat remarks earlier in the day. "For a White House that likes to condemn mixed signals, it certainly is sending out a few of its own," Singer said.
The Bush-Allawi joint news conference, in the midst of the presidential campaign, echoed Mr. Bush's campaign speeches and the themes of his attacks against Kerry.
Six weeks before the election, Allawi strongly supported Mr. Bush's policy. On his first official visit to Washington, the prime minister told a joint meeting of Congress that "the values of liberty and democracy" are taking hold in Iraq despite setbacks. He offered a simple, "Thank you, America" for driving Saddam Hussein from power.
Kerry contends Mr. Bush has been dishonest about the war's rationale and cost and lacks an effective strategy to end the crisis. While Kerry urges a start of troop withdrawals within six months and complete pullout in four years, Mr. Bush and Allawi said the United States must stand and fight.
"If we stop fighting the terrorists in Iraq, they would be free to plot and plan attacks elsewhere, in America and other free nations," the president said, linking Iraq with the more politically popular war on terror. "To retreat now would betray our mission, our word and our friends. … America will keep its commitments."
Without mentioning Kerry by name, Mr. Bush and Allawi suggested his criticism was undercutting Iraq and the United States. "You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages," Mr. Bush said.
Before meeting with Allawi, Mr. Bush met in the Oval Office with Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East. Abizaid said Wednesday that more troops will be needed to secure Iraq's elections, but that he expected Iraqi or international troops could do the job. "I don't foresee a need for more American troops, but we can't discount it," Abizaid said.
Asked about Abizaid's comment, Mr. Bush said the general did not mention to him the need for more troops. "But if he were to say that, I'd listen to him," Mr. Bush said.
But Allawi said bluntly: "To have more troops, we don't need." He said Iraq needs to train more of its own troops because they ultimately will have to defend their country. Iraq now has 100,000 people in the police, national guard and army forces, Allawi said.
Mr. Bush suggested on Thursday that he wanted to clarify two things he had said recently — that just a "handful" of terrorists were at work in Iraq and that a bleak intelligence assessment of Iraq's future involved "guessing" by U.S. intelligence officials.
At issue is a National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq's future that spoke of possibilities ranging from tenuous stability to civil war.
Asked about the report earlier in the week in New York, Mr. Bush had said, "They were only guessing as to what the conditions might be like."
On Thursday, asked about it again, Mr. Bush said, "This is a report that talks about possibilities about what can happen in Iraq, not probabilities."
"And this report was written in July. And now we are here in September. And, as I said, 'estimate' would have been a better word," Mr. Bush said.
He was also asked at the news conference about comments on Wednesday on the campaign trail in Pennsylvania in which he used the word "handful" to characterize terrorists and militants in Iraq who are attacking coalition forces and Iraqis.
Kerry seized on Mr. Bush's remarks, saying Bush had "blundered again saying there are only a handful of terrorists in Iraq."
"I think he's living in a make-believe world," Kerry said Wednesday.
On Thursday in the Rose Garden, Mr. Bush said he had been primarily referring to "the people that are affecting the nightly news" with beheadings, bombings and other acts of violence. "My point is that a few people, relative to the whole, are trying to stop the march of freedom," Mr. Bush said.