WASHINGTON – President Bush says the U.S. military will pull out of Iraq (search) "as quickly as possible," but he is not endorsing Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement that troops could begin returning home this year.
"The way I would put it is, American troops will be leaving as quickly as possible, but they won't be leaving until we have completed our mission," Bush said in a Washington Post published Sunday.
"And part of the mission is to train Iraqis so they can fight the terrorists. And the sooner the Iraqis are prepared -- better prepared, better equipped to fight -- the sooner our troops will start coming home," Bush said.
Powell told National Public Radio last week that he believes Americans could begin leaving Iraq this year as the Iraqis take on a larger security role. Powell, in his final days as the government's chief diplomat, said he could not give a timeline when all the troops will be home.
Bush said the U.S. military is "constantly assessing" if Iraqi security forces are up to the job, allowing the United States to begin pulling out. The president would not commit to significantly reduce troops by the end of his second term in 2009.
Bush said his priorities over the next four years are winning the fight against terrorism, spreading freedom and democracy, reducing the deficit and overhauling Social Security (search) and the tax system.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who appeared on three talks shows on Sunday, said Bush's inaugural address on Thursday will stress those goals.
"It really is a liberty speech -- how we promote liberty overseas, which is in our direct interest for security here at home, as well as liberty here at home," Bartlett told "Fox News Sunday."
"That means giving people more control over their lives, giving them a stake in the future of America by giving them more control and more power to make decisions on their own behalf," Bartlett said.
In the interview, Bush said the public ratified his approach toward Iraq when they re-elected him rather than Democrat John Kerry. Bush also said there is no reason to hold any administration official accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in the planning or conduction of the war.
"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said. "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."
The Senate's second-ranking Democrat took issue with Bush's claim that the country has given him a mandate.
"To suggest there is this broad mandate and the Democrats should slink away and reconsider all their values is just plain wrong," Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told "Fox News Sunday."
"I think we have to carefully try to find common ground with this president. Where we can't find it, we're going to stand our ground," Durbin said.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said about a dozen of the 44 Senate Democrats are willing to work with the GOP leadership.
"There are a lot of Democrats who look at this last election, last several elections, and they see that this obstructionist agenda that was led by (defeated Senate Democratic leader) Tom Daschle has not been beneficial to them politically and it certainly hasn't been beneficial to the country," Santorum said.
The new Democratic leader, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, said Democrats can work with Bush if the president shows some "humility."
"I think we don't need arrogance here," Reid told ABC's "This Week" "We need the ability to work together."
Among the other issues discussed were:
— gay marriage (search). Bush said in the interview that he will not lobby the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The president said there are enough senators to support the proposal. Bartlett tried to stem any fallout from social conservatives, saying Bush was talking about the "legislative reality." Bartlett said the president will continue to push for the ban.
Santorum, a leading opponent of gay marriage, said he is confident the president won't "break faith with social conservatives. ... He's going to fight for this."
— Iran (search). Bartlett said the president is committed to working with allies in European to persuade Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran has denied allegations of a secret nuclear weapons program, saying the country's nuclear activities are for peaceful energy purposes.
"It's critical that the entire world focus on this issue. It is a threat that we have to take seriously and we'll continue to work through the diplomatic initiatives that he set forth," Bartlett said.