Bush defends Rumsfeld

WASHINGTON – President George W. 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 H. Rumsfeld. ‘He’s doing a very 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, where a bloody insurgency continues unabated, Bush urged the American people to remain patient well beyond the Jan. 30 elections to give Iraqis time to 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.

Critics have raised questions about whether enough U.S. troops are in Iraq to bring security for the elections. Meanwhile, more than 1,300 American troops have died since the war began in March 2003 and soldiers have complained about long deployments and a lack of vital equipment.

‘No question about it. The bombers are having an effect’ on Americans’ belief in success in Iraq, Bush said, while adding that his own confidence remains unshaken.

Bush said ‘I would call the results mixed’ on a U.S. effort to put Iraqi security in the hands of its own people. He said U.S. officials in charge of the effort will ‘spend a lot of time and effort’ on fixing the problem by improving the Iraqi command structure.

‘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.’