Bush insists: 'Life in Iraq is better than under Saddam'

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The Independent US

George Bush insisted yesterday that progress was being made in Iraq, only a day after 67 people were killed in bomb attacks, and that elections would go ahead as planned.

George Bush insisted yesterday that progress was being made in Iraq, only a day after 67 people were killed in bomb attacks, and that elections would go ahead as planned.

The US President also defended Donald Rumsfeld amid growing criticism about the Defence Secretary's handling of the war and his arrogant manner in dealing with Congress. He came under fire most recently after it was revealed that he had not personally signed letters of condolence to the relatives of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr Bush said: "Next month, Iraqis will go to the polls and express their will in free elections. Preparations are under way for an energetic campaign and the participation is wide and varied. More than 80 parties and coalitions have been formed and more than 7,000 candidates have registered for the elections.

"No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble free. Yet I am confident of the result."

Mr Bush's comments at his "end of the year" press conference came the day after bomb attacks by insurgents in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala killed dozens and left more than 120 wounded. In Baghdad, three election officials were dragged from their car by a group of around 30 insurgents and shot dead.

But the President again claimed that the public were not seeing the full picture of events in Iraq - a country from which almost all aid groups have withdrawn because of a lack of security - and that there were positive signs.

"I can understand why people - they're looking on your TV screen and seeing indiscriminate bombing, where thousands of innocent or hundreds of innocent Iraqis are getting killed, and they're saying whether or not we're able to achieve the objective," he said. "What they don't see are the - you know, the small businesses starting, 15 of the 18 provinces are relatively stable, where progress is being made. Life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein."

Independent studies suggest that many thousands of Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the American-led invasion. A recent study published in The Lancet estimated that more than 100,000 civlians had been killed. The British Government still claims that fewer than 4,000 civilians have died. About 1,300 US troops have been killed.

John McCain, the Republican senator is one of several high-ranking figures who have recently expressed doubts about Mr Rumsfeld. And Mr Bush went out of his way yesterday to defend him. "I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," Mr Bush said. "He's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow. You know, sometimes perhaps his demeanour is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff no-nonsense demeanour is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."

Two weeks ago, The Independent reported claims by an army veteran, Colonel David Hackworth, that Mr Rumsfeld did not personally sign his name on so-called "killed-in-action" (KIA) letters sent to relatives of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many family members have complained and Mr Rumsfeld has apologised and promised to sign all future correspondence himself.