ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE – President Bush says he doesn't envision a longtime presence of U.S. troops in Iraq similar to post-World War II deployments in Europe and South Korea that continue today.
"I think the Iraqi people want us to leave once we've helped them get on the path of stability and democracy and once we have trained their troops to do their own hard work," Bush said Monday in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.
Still, Bush said, "It's very difficult for me to predict what forces will exist although I will tell you that Iraq's leadership has made it quite clear that they can manage their own affairs at the appropriate time."
If free and open Iraqi elections lead to the seating of a fundamentalist Islamic government, "I will be disappointed. But democracy is democracy," Bush said. "If that's what the people choose, that's what the people choose."
Bush steered nearly all questions dealing with Iraq to criticism of Democratic rival John Kerry just two weeks before a U.S. election that polls show to be close.
As to reports that Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former top general of U.S. forces in Iraq, had warned nearly a year ago of supply problems in Iraq, Bush said:
"There's a chain of command. When the commanders on the ground say they need more, we respond as quickly as possible," Bush said.
"He was asking about much needed supplies. The Congress had an opportunity to vote on funding to get those supplies in the pipeline. And my opponent voted against that funding," Bush said.
"What he needs to do is address why he voted against the $87 billion," Bush said.
Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, voted against the $87 billion in October 2003, and Congress gave its final approval to the measure in November. A memo written by Sanchez asking for more equipment, according to a story in Monday's Washington Post, came a month later.
Kerry used the Sanchez incident to deliver fresh criticism of the president's Iraq policy.
In his first interview since three debates with Kerry, Bush sat in his cabin on Air Force One, relaxing in shirt sleeves in a leather chair on a flight from Washington to New Jersey. Although Democrats have carried the state in every presidential election since 1988, Bush said, "We have a shot" this year.
Bush said he would not pass judgment on a unit of Army reservists who refused a mission on grounds that it would be too dangerous. The Army announced last week it was investigating up to 19 members of a platoon from a company based in South Carolina after they refused a supply mission.
"That's up to the military. The military will take the appropriate action on both their concerns as well as their actions," Bush said.
Asked whether the defiance reflected larger concerns among U.S. troops in Iraq, Bush said, "I need to know more about that. I understand this is a very rare incident."
Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War but did not go overseas.
The president spent the night in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., and was campaigning across Florida on Tuesday.
Asked whether he thought another overtime election was possible, like the 2000 contest that led to a recount of Florida ballots and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush's favor, the president said: "Having gone through one election that didn't end until mid-December, I certainly hope we don't have to go through another.
"And so, therefore we will do everything we can to maximize our vote," he added with a smile.
On other topics, Bush:
— Said Iran and North Korea, both with nuclear ambitions, are dangerous states, but not necessarily more so than when he was elected. He said the strategy he has followed "makes them less likely to take action that would make the world more dangerous."
— Insisted he would not bring back the military draft, even if there were a crisis with North Korea or Iran. "I believe we've got the assets and manpower necessary to be able to deal with another theater should one arise," the president said.
— Accused Kerry of using "scare tactics" on Social Security and the draft to frighten older and younger voters. That drew a response from Kerry spokesman Phil Singer that, "These points aren't scare tactics, they're facts."
— Criticized Kerry, as Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, had done, for mentioning during last week's debate that one of Cheney's daughters is a lesbian. "I thought it was over the line," Bush said.
— Said government officials remained concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack before the Nov. 2 election. "We have no specific threat information. Otherwise we would have let everybody know. On the other hand we are on alert," he said, mentioning the train bombing in Madrid before Spain's elections.