In a sobering assessment of the Iraq war, US President George W. Bush acknowledged on Monday that Americans' resolve had been shaken by grisly scenes of death and des-truction and he pointedly criticized the performance of US-trained Iraqi troops.
"No question about it," he said. "The bombers are having an effect."
Bush also offered a warm testimonial for US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the face of a growing number of expressions of no-confidence by Republican senators.
Rumsfeld appears "rough and gruff," Bush said, but "he's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow."
For 53 minutes, 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.
Bush spoke a day after the deadliest attacks in Iraq since July -- killing at least 54 people in Najaf and at least 13 in Karbala -- and six weeks before Iraqis vote for a transitional assembly that will choose a president and a government and draft a permanent constitution. US newspapers showed chilling pictures of rebels in the heart of Baghdad executing election workers in cold blood.
"And so the American people are taking a look at Iraq and wondering whether the Iraqis are eventually going to be able to fight off these bombers and killers," Bush said in perhaps his clearest expression of frustration with Iraqi forces.
Bush's strategy calls for US troops to protect Iraq while local police and soldiers are trained to do the job themselves, eventually allowing the US to withdraw.
"Now I would call the results mixed in terms of standing up Iraqi units who are willing to fight," Bush said in a candid assessment. "There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield. That's unacceptable. Iraq will never secure itself if they have troops that, when the heat gets on, they leave the battlefield."
What is needed, he said, is a better military command structure.
Polls show an erosion in Americans' confidence that a stable, democratic government will be established in Iraq.
"Polls change. Polls go up, polls go down," Bush said.
He said he understood why Americans have doubts about Iraq's ability to deal with the situation.
"They're looking on your TV screen and seeing indiscriminate bombings, where thousands of innocent -- or hundreds of innocent Iraqis are getting killed," he said.
But Bush said those pictures do not reflect the fact that 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces are relatively stable and that small businesses are starting up.
"Life is better now than it was under [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein," he said. "But no question about it. The bombers are having an effect ... They're trying to shake the will of the Iraqi people and, frankly, trying to shake the will of the American people."
Bush warned that insurgents would try to delay Iraq's elections, scheduled for Jan. 30, and intimidate the people.
"I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free," Bush said.
"Yet I am confident of the result. I'm confident that terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward and Iraq will be a democracy," he said.
Bush said he could not predict when US forces could come home.
He also renewed his warning to Syria and Iran against "meddling" in Iraq's political process.