President Bush pointedly acknowledged today that U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over their country's security, and cautioned...

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President Bush pointedly acknowledged today that U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are not ready to take over their country’s security, and cautioned that next month’s elections there are only the beginning of a long process toward democracy.

“I certainly don’t expect the process to be trouble-free,” Bush said at a year-end news conference in which he signaled tough spending cuts to come and declined to offer specific solutions to Social Security’s solvency.

Bush also gave a fresh vote of confidence to embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “He’s doing a very fine job,” the president said.

The 55-minute session, the 17th solo news conference of his presidency, was part of Bush’s effort to seize the momentum from his re-election victory and push several ambitious domestic and foreign policy priorities in his second term.

On Iraq, Bush accused insurgents there of trying to “disrupt the democratic process” and urged the American people to remain patient well beyond the Jan. 30 elections as Iraqis craft a constitution and strengthen their security forces.

“The elections in January are the beginning of a process and it is important for the American people to understand that,” he said.

Critics have raised questions about whether enough U.S. troops are in Iraq to bring security for the elections. More than 1,300 American troops have died since the war began in March 2003. Also, soldiers have complained about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.

Bush said “I would call the results mixed” on a U.S. effort to put Iraqi security in the hands of its own people.

“There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield — that is unacceptable,” he said. “… We are under no illusion that this Iraqi force is not ready to fight in toto.”

Essential to the American strategy for withdrawing its troops from Iraq is the effort to train Iraqi forces for security and combat. But doubts have been raised from several quarters about the effectiveness of the effort and the reliability of Iraqi security forces.

On domestic issues, Bush said he will submit a federal budget that will cut the deficit in half in five years in part by asking for strict spending discipline. His fiscal 2006 budget is due to Congress in February.

“We will submit a budget that fits the times. It will provide every tool and resource to the military, will protect the homeland, and meet other priorities of the government,” he said.

“It’s going to be a tough budget, no doubt about it,” Bush said.

On Social Security, Bush said he recognized that there would be “difficult choices” but said he won’t lay out specifics until Congress has a chance to address the issue. Beyond proposing allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts and saying he will not support an increase in payroll taxes, Bush has refused to offer specifics of his plan.

“The first step in this process is for members of Congress to realize we have a problem,” he said.

Without any changes, Social Security would begin paying more in benefits than it takes in by 2018.

As for Rumsfeld, a growing number of lawmakers, including Republicans, have voiced no confidence in the defense secretary. But Bush defended his Pentagon chief.

“Beneath that rough and gruff no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and the grief that war causes,” Bush said, batting away criticism that Rumsfeld had not personally signed condolence letters to the families of troops who have died.

Rumsfeld agreed to Bush’s request this month to stay in the Cabinet during the president’s second term and has received steadfast support from the White House since.

Bush defended his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he has had disagreements over the war on terror and, more recently, over the disputed elections in Ukraine. U.S. and Soviet officials said Monday that Bush and Putin would meet in Slovakia on Feb. 24 as part of an effort to improve U.S. relations with European nations.

“The relationship’s an important relationship and I would call the relationship a good relationship,” Bush said, adding that he’s talked with Putin about getting Russia admitted to the World Trade Organization.

Bush also said he will work toward giving both Russia and the United States equal access to nuclear storage sites.

Earlier this month, Putin said he could not imagine how Iraqi elections could be held under “conditions of occupation by foreign forces,” a pointed reference to the United States.

The president defended his failed nomination of former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik to be the Homeland Security secretary. Kerik ultimately withdrew, citing his failure to pay all the required taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper who may have been in the country illegally. The incident raised questions about the ability of the White House to fully vet its nominees.

“In retrospect he made the right decision to pull his name down,” Bush said. “The lessons learned is continue to vet and ask questions.”

Bush didn’t tip his hand about who might be nominated to be the new national intelligence director — a post created by the largest overhaul of U.S. intellience-gathering in a half century that Bush signed into law last week.

The new law creates a national intelligence center and a powerful new position of national intelligence direction to oversee the nation’s 15 separate intelligence agencies.

“I’m going to find somebody who knows something about intelligence,” Bush said, “and capable and honest and ready to do the job.”