WASHINGTON – President Bush says he has not received any request to send more American forces to Iraq and that commanders have told him the 144,000 troops already deployed are "what they can live with."
Bush also said "it's hard for me to tell" if U.S. troops will still be in Iraq when he leaves office in January 2009.
Five days before the midterm elections, the president said he understand the anxieties of Republicans who have distanced themselves from his Iraq policies. "People will run the race they need to run," he said. Bush said Democrats "don't have a plan for victory."
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Bush spoke in an interview with The Associated Press and others Wednesday, a day before he headed out for five days of campaigning up to Election Day. He plans to vote Tuesday in Crawford, Texas, and then fly back to Washington to await returns at the White House.
Discounting mounting predictions that Republicans will lose control of the House, Bush expressed confidence that his party would maintain its grip on both the Senate and House.
"I don't believe it's over until everybody votes," Bush said, sitting in a wing chair in the Oval Office in front of a table adorned with a bowl of roses. "And I believe that people are concerned about the amount of taxes they pay, and I know many people are concerned about whether or not this country is secure against attack."
Now in its fourth year, the war in Iraq is the top issue in the election. Bush said he wanted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the top architect of the war, and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain with him until the end of his presidency.
"Both those men are doing fantastic jobs and I strongly support them," Bush said.
Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, arguing that he has mishandled the war in Iraq, where more than 2,800 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Cheney has faced sharp criticism for his hardline views. In recent polling, less than 40 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Cheney and about a third had a favorable view of Rumsfeld.
Bush said he valued Cheney's advice and judgment.
"The good thing about Vice President Cheney's advice is, you don't read about it in the newspaper after he gives it," the president said.
While Cheney was re-elected with Bush for four years, there has been recurring speculation that he might step down, perhaps for health reasons. As a practical matter, Bush could ask the vice president to leave if he wanted.
Bush credited Rumsfeld with overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while overhauling the military. "I'm pleased with the progress we're making," the president said.
Responding to Bush, Sen. Charles Schumer D-N.Y., said: "With all due respect, the president just doesn't get it. We need a change in the Iraq strategy, but with Rumsfeld running the show we'll never get it."
Bush said U.S. commanders recommended a troop increase last summer "and I said, 'You bet. I support you.'" He said there's been a lot of speculation about a troop-increase request but that he hasn't received it. He said the generals have told him that "the troop level they got right now is what they can live with."
Bush took the opportunity to take another poke at Sen. John Kerry, in political hot water for a remark that the White House has characterized as a slam on U.S. troops in Iraq. Kerry has said he was making a joke critical of Bush, not the troops, and has apologized.
"It didn't sound like a joke to me," the president said.
Bush opened the interview by saying he was pleased that North Korea was returning to stalled nuclear talks. Although North Korea has a history of walking away from negotiations, Bush did not express doubts about the intentions of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader.
"It's his choice," Bush said. "I would hope he is sincere." He said that any deal with North Korea would have to be verifiable.
The president said he did not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, even though it tested an atomic bomb three weeks ago. "Our objective is to see they're not a nuclear weapons state," the president said.
"We're going to talk about making sure that the sanctions passed by the United Nations are effective," the president said. "Implementation of the sanctions will be on the table."
As for Iraq, the president expressed confidence in Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki despite apparent strains between Washington and Baghdad.
"I appreciate he's making hard decisions that he thinks are necessary to keep his country united and moving forward," Bush said. "I didn't find many differences of opinion when I talked to him. We both want Iraq to be able to govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. We both want there to be benchmarks — Iraqi developed and designed benchmarks — that show the Iraqi people and the American people that this young democracy is making progress."
Bush said that "there's no question that October was a tough month. We lost 103 soldiers. It was a tough month because we were on the offense, the enemy was on the offense — the enemy was trying to affect us. And it was a tough month because of Ramadan. ... Our troops and Iraqi troops killed or captured over 1,500 people during this period of time."
Bush refused to comment on Cheney's assertion that a "dunk in water" of terrorist suspects was a "no-brainer" if it would save American lives. "We don't discuss the techniques we use," he said.