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U.S., Iraqi leaders say progress made in advance of elections

Friday, September 24, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Denying he has painted too rosy a picture of Iraq, President Bush said Thursday he would consider sending more troops if asked, but Iraq's interim leader firmly said they weren't needed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested parts of Iraq might have to be excluded from elections in January.

Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, standing in the Rose Garden under a bright sun, agreed 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," Bush said.

Allawi said 14 or 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces "are completely safe."

Rumsfeld was asked by a Senate committee how U.N.-supervised elections could be held if Fallujah and other restive cities remained in revolt.

"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."

Allawi, during an evening appearance sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed optimism about the election process. He predicted security will get better during the four months remaining before the election.

"Plans are in place," he said. "We hope it will work." At another point, he said the elections "won't be 100 percent safe" but "at least it will make a very good start for Iraq."

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said Rumsfeld's comments were at odds with 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.

On his first official visit to Washington, Allawi 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 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, Bush and Allawi said the United States must stand and fight.

Without mentioning Kerry by name, Bush and Allawi suggested his criticism was undercutting Iraq and the United States. "You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages," Bush said.

Allawi said, "When political leaders sound the sirens of defeatism in the face of terrorism, it only encourages more violence."

During his evening appearance, Allawi was asked about a purported Kerry comment that Bush invited him here to help with the re-election campaign.

Allawi said he did not want to get involved in U.S. politics. But he added that the main purpose of his visit was to express his "heartfelt appreciation" for what the United States has done in Iraq.

Kerry said that contrary to assertions by Bush and Allawi, things are not improving in Iraq "and we need to change the course to protect our troops and to win."

Speaking in Columbus, Ohio, Kerry said: "The prime minister and the president are here, obviously, to put their best face on the policy. But the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story."

In a rare admission of error, Bush said he should not have said -- as he did Tuesday -- that the CIA was just guessing in a gloomy intelligence assessment this summer that raised the prospect of Iraq tumbling into civil war. "I used an unfortunate word, 'guess,"' Bush said. "I should have used 'estimate.'

Before meeting with Allawi, 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, 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," Bush said.

But Allawi said bluntly, "To have more troops, we don't need." Iraq now has 100,000 people in the police, national guard and army forces, he said.

His address to Congress was warmly received.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who has criticized Bush on Iraq, said, "Certainly the prime minister was not going to go before the Congress of the United States or the people of this country and interject any element of doubt or questioning about his government's purpose or focus or credibility or ability."

"It was optimistic. ... It was very positive," said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. However, Skelton added, "I would feel better if the Iraqi people would express their gratitude and stop harboring those insurgents. That's the way to express gratitude to America."


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