In a wide-ranging, 35-minute interview with The Washington Post aboard the presidential jet Air Force One, Bush said: "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."

There was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the aftermath, Bush added.

 

"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said in an interview published in the newspaper's Sunday edition.

 

With Iraqi elections two weeks away and no signs of the anti-US violence there abating, he set no timetable for withdrawing US troops, the newspaper reported.

 

Second-term plans

 

Bush twice declined to endorse outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent statement that the number of Americans serving in Iraq could be reduced by the year's end.

 

Asked why the administration has so far failed to locate Usama bin Ladin, the mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bush said, "Because he's hiding".

Bush also used the interview to lay out a domestic policy plan during his second term.

Bush: Administration officials not
to blame for Iraq war mistakes

He said he will not ask Congress to expand the size of the National Guard or regular army, as some lawmakers and military experts have proposed.

 

He will also not press senators to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the top priority for many social conservative groups.

 

He said he has no plans to cut benefits for the approximately 40% of social security recipients who collect monthly disability and survivor payments as he prepares his plan for partial privatisation of the system.

 

Bush urged Americans to show patience as Iraq moves slowly towards creating a democratic nation where a dictatorship once stood.

 

Complicated matter

 

But the relentless optimism that dominated Bush's speeches before the US election was sometimes replaced by pragmatism and caution, the newspaper said.

 

Powell had said US troop levels in
Iraq could be reduced this year

"On a complicated matter such as removing a dictator from power and trying to help achieve democracy, sometimes the unexpected will happen, both good and bad," he said.

 

"I am realistic about how quickly a society that has been dominated by a tyrant can become a democracy. I am more patient than some."

 

Last week, Powell said US troop levels could be reduced this year, but Bush said it is premature to judge how many US men and women will be needed to defeat anti-US fighters and plant a new and sustainable government.

 

Bush declined to pledge to significantly reduce US troop levels before the end of his second term in January 2009.

 

Safe havens

 

"The sooner the Iraqis are better prepared, better equipped to fight, the sooner our troops can start coming home," he said.

 

A report released last week by US intelligence agencies warned the war in Iraq has created a training ground for terrorists.

 

Bush called the report "somewhat speculative", but acknowledged that they could be right.

 

"If we are not diligent and firm, there will be parts of the world that become pockets for terrorists to find safe haven and to train. And we have a duty to disrupt that," he said.