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Iraq Transition

Bush: U.S. will succeed in Iraq

On Iran nukes: 'They could blackmail the world'

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President Bush answers questions during Tuesday's news conference at the White House.

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• Interactive: Sectarian divide

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Iraq
White House
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Tuesday that he believes the United States will succeed in Iraq, and that if he didn't believe so, he would withdraw U.S. forces.

"I'm confident, I believe, I'm optimistic we'll succeed -- if not, I'd pull our troops out," Bush said during a White House news conference.

"If I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there. I meet with too many families who've lost a loved one to not be able to look them in the eye and say, 'We're doing the right thing,' and we are doing a right thing." (Watch what he had to say about a possible civil war -- 6:59)

As of Monday, 2,316 U.S. troops have died in Iraq. In December, Bush estimated that at least 30,000 Iraqis have died.

"We are doing the right thing. A democracy in Iraq is going to affect the neighborhood. A democracy in Iraq is going to [inspire] reformers in a part of the world that is desperate for reformation," the president said.

Bush also hinted that U.S. forces could remain in Iraq after his presidency ends in January 2009 -- in answering a reporter's question about when all American troops would leave.

"That, of course, is an objective," Bush said, "And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."

In response to Bush's comments, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said that deploying troops until 2009 is "a military commitment to Iraq that was never contemplated or approved by the American people."

"Three years into the war in Iraq, with that country now experiencing a low-grade civil war, it has become increasingly clear that President Bush is content with an open-ended commitment with no end in sight for our U.S. troops and taxpayers," Reid said in a written statement.

"President Bush must accept that he has to change course, reject the notion of an open-ended commitment in Iraq and finally develop the plan that allows our troops to begin to come home."

On Iraq's neighbor Iran, Bush expressed concern about Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons program, saying it eventually "could blackmail the world."

The president also touched on topics such as the U.S. economy, immigration and gay marriage. (Transcript of news conference)

Bush has launched a campaign aimed at reversing opinion polls that suggest U.S. support for the war is waning.

He dismissed the notion that Iraq was on the brink of civil war nearly a month after an attack on a Shiite mosque in Samarra sparked widespread sectarian fighting.

"No question that sectarian violence must be confronted by the Iraqi government and a better-trained police force, yet we're making progress," Bush said.

He said Iraq's leaders have avoided civil war and that "the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart and they didn't. And that's a positive development."

Bush appeared to acknowledge some mistakes in Iraq but repeated his opinion that the costs of failure would be too great to withdraw troops.

"No question about it, we missed some time as we adjusted our tactics," Bush said. "We had to change our reconstruction strategy. You know, we thought it would make sense initially when we went in there to build big, grand projects, which turned out to be targets for the insurgents to blow up."

Diplomatic efforts on Iran

Bush talked about the conflict between the United States, members of the European Union and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program, which Washington suspects is aimed at developing weapons.

start quote... If the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world; if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate.end quote
-- President Bush

"It's important for our citizens to understand that we've got to deal with this issue diplomatically now," Bush said. "And the reason why is because if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could blackmail the world; if the Iranians were to have a nuclear weapon, they could proliferate.

"Our policy for the Iranians in terms of the nuclear program is to continue to work with the EU-3 [Germany, France and Great Britain] as well as Russia and China." (Read what China said Tuesday about the Iranian nuclear issue)

Talks with Iran stalled in January when the nation began small-scale uranium enrichment and ended its voluntary cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been conducting surprise inspections. The United States and European Union demanded that Iran reconsider its decision, but Tehran accused the West of holding it to higher standards than it does the rest of the world.

The president also said he had given permission to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to talk to Iranian representatives in Baghdad about U.S. concerns that Tehran is helping to spread sectarian violence and may be moving bomb-making materials from Iran into Iraq.

Other issues

  • Possible staff changes: Bush was questioned about recent reports he was under pressure to overhaul his staff. "I'm satisfied with the people I've surrounded myself with," he said. "We've been a remarkably stable administration, and I think that's good for the country." About Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he said, "I don't believe he should resign. I think he's done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon."
  • Tax cuts: Bush said he's going to continue to work with Congress to make his legislated federal tax cuts permanent, to restrain federal spending and to cut the deficit in half by 2009.
  • Social Security: "It didn't get done," he said about his failed attempt to restructure the federal retirement income program.
  • Immigration and control along the U.S.-Mexican border: "There needs to be enforcement mechanisms that don't discourage the Border Patrol agents. They work hard. They get somebody coming in from country X. The person says, 'Check back in with us in 30 days.' They don't."
  • Gay marriage: "I believe society's interests are met by defining marriage as between a man and a woman."
  • U.S. economy: "Last year, our economy grew at a healthy 3.5 percent. Over the past 2 1/2 years, the economy has added nearly 5 million new jobs." Bush said, "the national unemployment rate is 4.8 percent. That's lower than the average rate of the 1970s and the 1980s and the 1990s." Bush credited the growing economy to "the hard work of the American people and good policies here in Washington."
  • CNN's Kathleen Koch and Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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