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Bush Hails 'Bright Moment' In Iraq

President Bush is hailing the opening session of Iraq's first freely elected parliament in half a century.

Mr. Bush told a White House news conference Wednesday that the meeting was "a bright moment" in Iraq's history. The parliament's 275 members, chosen during Jan. 30 elections, convened in a Baghdad auditorium amid tight security with U.S. helicopter gunships overhead.

Mr. Bush also said he understands the desire of U.S. coalition partners to withdraw troops from Iraq, but he declined to set a timetable for bringing American forces home.

"Our troops will come home when Iraqis are capable of defending themselves," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush spoke a day after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to start drawing down his country's 3,000-strong contingent in Iraq amid widespread anger over the recent killing of an Italian officer by U.S. troops.

The president said he had spoken by telephone to Berlusconi earlier in the day and they talked about both Iraq and Mr. Bush's recommendation of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to become head of the World Bank.

"He wanted me to know there was no change in his policy that any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies," Mr. Bush said. He said Berlusconi assured him that the Italian withdrawal would be phased and would not undermine "the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves."

Some 14 nations have withdrawn troops over the past year, complicating efforts to keep the peace while Iraq's new government builds up its own police and military units.

Mr. Bush said he understood why countries wanted to bring their troops home. "What you're going to find is that countries will be willing, anxious" to leave — but only when Iraqi police and security forces are capable of taking over the work now done by coalition forces.

He denied that what the administration has called the "coalition of the willing" was crumbling.

Turning to Social Security, Mr. Bush acknowledged that he was having a hard time persuading many Americans and members of Congress to support his plan for adding personal investment accounts to the nation's retirement system.

But, he said, "I believe we're making progress."

He said he recognized there would be "a tough vote" ahead on Social Security overhaul.

On still another subject, Mr. Bush said Iran must permanently ban uranium reprocessing to reassure the world that its government is not concealing a nuclear weapons program. Otherwise, Mr. Bush said he and leaders of European nations that are negotiating directly with Tehran have agreed to take the issue to the United Nations.

"The understanding is we go to the Security Council if they reject the offer," Mr. Bush said. "And I hope they don't."

Mr. Bush shrugged off a question about detainees being sent by the United States back to their home countries where they could be subject to torture.

"The United States must make sure we protect our people and our friends from attack. One way to do so is arrest people and send them back" to their home countries, he said. "We seek assurances that no one will be tortured."
This was Mr. Bush's 17th formal, solo White House news conference since taking office, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller. It is the fifth consecutive month since his re-election that he has held such a meeting with reporters.

On other topics, President Bush:

  • nudged Congress to pass energy legislation, saying he hoped lawmakers would go back to their districts and listen to complaints about rising gasoline prices and return and send an energy bill to his desk.
  • said he had confidence in Rep. Tom DeLay as the House majority leader faces allegations of ethics violations.
  • said he would not second-guess Congress as it issues subpoenas for figures in Major League Baseball but is pleased with the league's response to the problem of steroids.

    Mr. Bush also reflected philosophically on his role as a second term president, saying he doesn't worry about his place in history or whether he will be vindicated in his efforts to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

    "I just don't worry about vindication or standing. ... You've got a lot on your plate on a regular basis. You don't have much time to sit around and wander, lonely in the Oval Office, kind of asking different portraits, 'How do you think my standing will be?'"

    "I've got a lot to do."

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