WASHINGTON – Wednesday's opening of parliament in Baghdad is a "bright moment in Iraq" despite ongoing violence in the country, President Bush said later the same day.
The 275 members of Iraq's first freely-elected Parliament in half a century, chosen during Jan. 30 elections, convened in an auditorium in the heavily guarded Green Zone (search) amid tight security.
Bush also denied that the U.S.-led coalition was crumbling, despite the news that Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (search) planned to order his nation's 3,000 troops to begin withdrawing in September. Italy is the 12th nation in the past year to begin the withdrawal of troops.
"He wanted me to know there was no change in his policy that any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies," Bush said of Berlusconi, adding that the prime minister had assured him he would not do anything to undermine "the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves." Later in the day, Berlusconi said his September deadline was a "hope" but not a set timetable.
Bush, answering questions at a White House press conference, gave no timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, saying it depended on the security situation.
"Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself," he said, stating that many American allies agreed.
Bush said democratic progress such as that seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon would prove examples for the region on how tyranny and dictatorship can be overthrown.
"It's important for people in that region to see what's possible in a free society," he said.
The administration is taking a wait-and-see approach to Iran's reaction to economic and other incentives being offered by the European Union (search), which is taking the lead in diplomatic negotiations.
But Bush hesitated to say whether he believed Tehran would comply with demands for a permanent ban on uranium reprocessing needed to develop a nuclear weapons program.
The president said he and European leaders had agreed to take the issue to the United Nations if Tehran did not comply.
"The understanding is we go to the Security Council if they reject the offer," Bush said. "And I hope they don't."
Asked if military options were being considered for Iran, Bush stressed that many diplomatic avenues were being pursued.
On the domestic front, the president appeared unruffled by Democratic suggestions that his Social Security reform proposals were dead in the water. Bush said he was making progress on convincing the American people of the need for Social Security reform.
"I am looking forward to continuing my dialogue with the people on Social Security," Bush said. "It's important for the American people to understand that I believe the Social Security system has worked well ... but I am deeply concerned about the Social Security system for younger Americans."
Bush and other administration officials have been touring the country pushing Bush's reform suggestions, some of which call for younger workers to create private investment accounts.
The president reiterated that Social Security benefits would not change for those born before 1950, and called on lawmakers to make sure the program will be available when today's younger workers retire. He urged congressional lawmakers to meet with voters about the issue.
"I urge the members ... to talk to their constituents, not only about the problems but about solutions," Bush said. "Members, I hope, will not talk about a Band-Aid solution, but talk about a permanent fix — something that will last forever."
Asked if he would be willing to drop the idea of personal retirement accounts in order to get the broader legislation passed, Bush said: "Personal accounts are very important for the individuals."
"I think people like the idea of being able to take some of their own money. ... You get to decide whether you want to put some of your own money aside," he said.
Adding that he wants action on the issue "as quickly as possible," the president added, "the longer we wait, the more difficult it is to solve the problem."
One economic factor sure to impact nearly all Americans is the rising cost of gasoline. Oil prices hit a record high early Wednesday, surpassing $56 a barrel. One AAA spokesman said he expected gas prices to hit a record high at the pump as early as Thursday.
Bush said he was concerned about the ramifications of spiking oil prices and urged congressional lawmakers to get feedback from their constituents on how to keep costs down.
"I am concerned about the price of energy. I'm concerned about what it means to the average American family when they see the price of gasoline going up. I'm concerned about what it means to small businesses," Bush said.
He said lawmakers need to get an energy bill to his desk that encourages conservation and continues to find alternative sources of energy. That bill should also include ways to modernize the nation's energy grid, he said, but doesn't need to be chock-full of incentives for energy companies to keep their prices low.
Passing a measure that allows oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) will also help, he said.
"There's a way to get some additional reserves here at home on the books," Bush said. "Demand is outracing supply and supply is getting tight."
The Senate was evenly divided on the eve of Wednesday's scheduled vote on the ANWR drilling issue, an amendment to the budget resolution being debated for fiscal year 2006.
The president also staved off questions regarding U.S. policy on sending terror suspects back to their countries of origin for further incarceration. Many news reports have suggested the Pentagon knows the suspects face torture in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.
Bush said that was not United States policy.
"We do believe in protecting ourselves — we don't believe in torture," he said.
Bush also commended Congress for holding hearings on steroid use in professional sports, particularly in Major League Baseball (search).
Several MLB representatives are set to testify to Congress Thursday on efforts being made to prevent steroid use.
The president also commended MLB for putting in place an effective drug-testing system, which was approved in January and gives players 10-day suspensions for first violations.
"It's very important that baseball follow through and implement the testing and obviously deal with those who get caught cheating in the system," Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers, said. "I do appreciate the public concern about the use of steroids in sports ... it sends terrible signals to youngsters."
On Tuesday, Senate Republicans batted down threats from their Democratic colleagues, who said they would paralyze the chamber if Republicans changed the rules to prevent filibusters against controversial judicial nominees.
Jumping into the political fray, Bush called on lawmakers to act on his court picks as soon as possible.
"I believe I have an obligation to put forth good honorable people to serve on the bench, and I have done so, and I expect them to get an up or down vote in the Senate," Bush said. "This isn't a new position for me."
The president repeated his position that he would like to see a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
In the wake of a California Superior Court ruling Monday that declared the state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Bush decried judges who dictate law from the bench.
The California ruling is actually "verifying why I took the position I took, and that is, I don't believe judges should be deciding this issue. ... It should be decided by the people, and the best way to do it is through the constitutional process."
He added: "Court rulings that do this actually strengthen my position."