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Bush says coalition in Iraq not crumbling
Updated: 2005-03-17 09:31

WASHINGTON - US President Bush acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. allies are anxious to get out of Iraq but firmly denied the coalition was crumbling. He also said patience was needed to find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program.

US President Bush speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 16, 2005, in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. [AP]
US President Bush speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, March 16, 2005, in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House. [AP]
A day after Italy announced it would begin withdrawing soldiers from Iraq by September, Bush refused to discuss the timing of any U.S. pullout. "Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself," he said.

With little advance notice, Bush came to the White House briefing room and held a 48-minute news conference in which he defended his Social Security plan against growing doubts, expressed concern over high energy prices and reasserted his support for the death penalty and his opposition to gay marriages.

It was Bush's fifth news conference since his November re-election. White House advisers are trying to have him hold the sessions on a monthly basis, far more frequently than in his first term.

The president used the occasion to confirm he intends to name Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of the Iraq invasion and a man known for his hawkish views on national security, to lead the World Bank.

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the coalition of countries that provided troops has fallen from 38 nations to 24, and the United States continues to shoulder the bulk of the outside responsibility and suffer most of the non-Iraqi casualties. Bush said allies want to get out as soon as Iraq can defend itself.

"People want their troops home. But they don't want their troops home if it affects the mission," he said, although few countries have hedged their withdrawals. Asked if the coalition was crumbling, Bush said, "No, quite to the contrary. I think the coalition has been buoyed by the courage of the Iraqi people" in defying death threats to vote.

On neighboring Iran, Bush refused to set a deadline for the Iranians to accept a deal to halt their uranium enrichment program in return for economic incentives. Believing that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, Bush said the United States would ask the U.N. Security Council to seek sanctions against Tehran if it rejected the offer, but he indicated that would not happen soon.

"I mean, it takes awhile for things to happen in the world. ... There's a certain patience required in order to achieve a diplomatic objective," the president said.

Bush opened the news conference saying he was making progress on Social Security although polls show growing opposition to his idea to overhaul the system by allowing younger workers to put some of their payroll taxes into private saving accounts. His formula would result in a reduction in guaranteed Social Security benefits.

Bush acknowledged that the private accounts would not solve Social Security's insolvency problem, and he refused anew to reveal how he would like to fix the system. Told that Democrats want him to spell out his proposal, Bush said, "I'm sure they do. The first bill on the Hill always is dead on arrival. I'm interested in coming up with a permanent solution. I'm not interested in playing political games."

Soliciting proposals from members of Congress, Bush pledged that "I will not take somebody's idea and use it as a political weapon against them."

On other points at the news conference, Bush:

-- Expressed confidence in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who faces ethical questions about his fund raising and about overseas travel paid for by special interests.

-- Refused to say whether Congress should subpoena Major League Baseball players to testify during spring training about steroid use.

-- Said he was trying to send a message by not inviting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland politicians to the White House for the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration. Instead, Bush has invited the sisters of a Catholic man, Robert McCartney, who was killed by IRA members. The sisters have waged a campaign to have his killers brought to justice. "They've committed themselves to a peaceful solution and hopefully their loved one will not have died in vain," Bush said.

-- Sidestepped a question about detainees being sent by the United States back to their home countries, where they could be tortured. "We seek assurances that no one will be tortured," he said.

-- Said he does not look at Middle East developments in terms of whether they reflect favorably on him. "I just don't worry about vindication or standing. ... You've got a lot on your plate on a regular basis. You don't have much time to sit around and wander, lonely in the Oval Office, kind of asking different portraits, 'How do you think my standing will be?'"

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