Mr. Bush acknowledged for the first time today that efforts to replace U.S. troops with Iraqi soldiers have been hampered by the lackluster performance of Iraqi units, including instances in which they've fled rather than fight. He called this unacceptable, as CBS News Correspondent
"There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield. That's unacceptable," he said. "Iraq will never fully secure itself if they have troops that, when they heat gets on, they leave the battlefield."
But in a wide-ranging year-end news conference, Mr. Bush expressed confidence that Iraqi elections in late January would start a new phase in the country's transition to democracy.
The president's willingness to acknowledge the difficulties in Iraq may reflect recent gloomy assessments he's received from U.S. intelligence officials. Administration officials have said that the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department have warned Bush in recent days that American troops are making little headway against insurgents who hope to block Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
As of Monday, at least 1,300 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to the Department of Defense. At least 1,021 died as a result of hostile action. The figures include three military civilians.
The presidential news conference came as authorities in Iraq rounded up dozens of suspects in terrorist attacks Sunday that killed at least 66 people, including three Iraqi election workers who were executed in broad daylight in the middle of a Baghdad street.
"No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free," Mr. Bush said. "Yet I'm 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."
Touching on several other topics, the president reaffirmed his support for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld amid much criticism, described his "complex" relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and declared that "now is the time" to seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Bush's less-than-glowing assessment of American-trained Iraqi troops contrasted with his previous evaluations, Roberts reports. Typically, Mr. Bush stresses progress toward the goal of training 200,000 Iraqi security forces by the end of next year. He's said repeatedly that any hope for a U.S. withdrawal hinges on the ability of Iraqi troops to take over.
The president described the overall performance of Iraqi troops as "mixed," noting that "some really fine units" fought with American troops against insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf. He declined to predict when U.S. troops might be able to turn over Iraq's security to Iraqi forces.
"I repeat, we're under no illusions," he said, about the quality of Iraqi troops. "I'm also wise enough not to give you a specific moment in time because, sure enough, if we don't achieve it, I'll spend the next press conference I have with you answering why we didn't achieve this specific moment."
For 53 minutes, Mr. Bush fielded questions on international and domestic affairs. It was his 17th formal news conference, held one day before he flies to the presidential retreat at Camp David for a vacation that will stretch into early next year and include a stay at his Texas ranch.
In other topics discussed at Monday's conference:
"Beneath that rough and gruff no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and the grief that war causes," Mr. Bush said, batting away criticism that Rumsfeld had not personally signed condolence letters to the families of troops who have died.
Rumsfeld agreed to Mr. Bush's request this month to stay in the Cabinet during the president's second term and has received steadfast support from the White House since. Much of the Rumsfeld criticism stems from his management of the war in Iraq. Mr. Bush acknowledged that U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over their country's security, and he cautioned that next month's elections there are only the beginning of a long process toward democracy.
Polls show erosion in Americans' confidence that a stable, democratic government will be established in Iraq. "Polls change. Polls go up, polls go down," Mr. Bush said.