Bush: Iraq elections not perfect, emerging democracies face challenges

President George W. Bush offered encouragement to war-weary Iraqis on Monday but acknowledged they have paid a heavy price _ 30,000 dead _ as a result of the U.S.-led war and its bloody aftermath.

As Iraqis began voting in parliamentary elections, Bush said that no country has formed a democracy without "challenges, setbacks and false starts."

"There's still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq," the president said, "but thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom."

Bush unexpectedly invited questions from the audience and he was asked about the number of Iraqi casualties in the war.

"I would say 30,000 more or less have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," the president said. "We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."

Another questioner challenged the administration's linkage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the Iraq war. Bush said that Saddam Hussein was a threat and he was believed to have weapons of mass destruction.

"I made a tough decision," Bush said. "And knowing what I know today I'd make the decision again. Removing &to=http://english.pravda.ru/main/18/90/363/16447_Kuwait.html' target=_blank>Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country."

The U.S. government's Arabic-language television service, Alhurra, carried Bush's remarks live, but it was not shown on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya or any of the Iraqi television stations. Most Iraqis disapprove of the presence of U.S. forces in their country, yet they are optimistic about Iraq's future and their own personal lives, according to a new poll.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed oppose the presence of troops from the United States and its coalition partners and less than half, 44 percent, say their country is better off now than it was before the war, according to an ABC News poll conducted with Time magazine and other media partners.

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