George W. Bush said Thursday there was progress in local communities in Iraq but that people are dissatisfied with the central government.
"Part of the reason why there's not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. Sort of an interesting comment, I heard somebody say, `Where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas."
It was a reference to the charismatic former leader of South Africa who helped reconcile his country after decades of racial division. Mandela is still alive.
Bush also expressed regret that innocent civilians were killed in a shooting Sunday in Baghdad involving guards from a private-sector American security contractor, Blackwater USA. Iraqi officials said at least 11 people died. The president said he wants to find out precisely what happened and that his "thoughts and prayers go out to the families."
"To the extent that innocent life was lost, you know, I'm saddened," he said. "Our objective is to protect innocent life. We've got a lot of brave souls in the theater working hard to protect innocent life."
Bush was asked whether the administration was moving the goal posts on its Iraq expectations, now that the Pentagon has said the some benchmarks that Baghdad was supposed to have met by this November will not be realized until July 2008. "The goals are the same. Achieving those goals has been slower than we thought," Bush said.
Bush said he took seriously threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "This is a person that consistently talks about the use of force on Israel, for example, and Israel is our very firm and strong ally," Bush said.
He was asked about a recent statement by France's foreign minister that the international community should prepare for the possibility of war in the event Iran obtains atomic weapons - although the official later stressed the focus remains on diplomatic pressures.
"I have consistently stated that I am hopeful that we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons program, and do so peacefully," Bush said. "That ought to be the objective of any diplomacy."
He also defended the decision of New York officials to deny permission to Ahmadinejad to lay a wreath at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers next week. "I can understand why they would not want somebody that's running a country that's a state sponsor of terror down there at the site," the president said.
Bush repeatedly refused to comment on reports that Israeli planes attacked an installation _ believed to be the beginnings of a nuclear project - in northern Syria on Sept. 6.
Asked about whether North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria, Bush said, "We expect them not to."
Bush also denounced as "disgusting" a newspaper ad by MoveOn.org that mocked Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and accused him of "cooking the books" on Iraq and asking: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"
Quickly responded Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal group: "What's disgusting is that the president has more interest in political attacks than developing an exit strategy to get our troops out of Iraq and end this awful war."
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