PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush said on Monday about 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since the Iraq war began and predicted this week's election will not be perfect but will be part of a Middle East turning point.
"No nation in history has made the transition to a free society without facing challenges, setbacks and false starts," Bush said in a speech and question-and-answer session at the World Affairs Council, striking a more realistic tone than he has sometimes in the past.
The speech was Bush's third in a series leading up to the election as he tries to bolster support for his Iraq strategy in hopes of bringing home some U.S. troops next year if Iraqi military forces are ready to fight the insurgency.
He needs a relatively smooth showing during Thursday's election in Iraq to hold up as a sign of progress and try to counter daily news of suicide bombings and U.S. troop deaths -- more than 2,100 since the start of the war -- that have soured Americans on the war.
Bush predicted insurgent violence will not end with the election and said much work remains to make Iraq's fledging democracy inclusive to all.
"This week elections won't be perfect, and a successful vote is not the end of the process. Iraqis still have more difficult work ahead," he said, adding, "These enemies aren't going to give up because of a successful election."
Still, he said, with Iraqis turning out three times in crucial votes, "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."
Asked about the Iraqi death toll, Bush said about 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
It was the first time Bush has publicly offered such an estimate. His aides quickly pointed out the president was not offering an official estimate.
"There is not an official U.S. government estimate," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. He said the 30,000 figure was based on "public estimates cited by media reports."
Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich demanded the Bush administration release all information it has on the number of Iraqi civilian deaths.
"It is far past time for this sort of admission from this White House," he said.
DEATH TOLL FIGURES VARY
Bush's figure for the death toll among Iraqis was in the range given by Iraq Body Count, a U.S.-British nongovernmental group, which currently says between 27,383 and 30,892 civilians -- rather than all Iraqi citizens -- have been killed in Iraq since the invasion.
Its figures are based on media reports, which often fail to capture all deaths in the country. Other estimates, including one done by scientists and published in the medical journal Lancet, put the civilian death toll as high as 100,000.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services committee, said Bush should have sent a stronger message that Iraqis must make necessary political compromises and amend their constitution after the election to be more inclusive of Sunnis and avoid a civil war.
"The president today made a wishy-washy statement, in an area which requires clarity, certainty, strength, and that is, we must tell the Iraqis that we have done our part -- we've done more than our part. Now it's up to you to get your political house in order," Levin told a news conference.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy said once a permanent Iraqi government has been elected, the process of redeploying American troops should begin, since the large U.S. military presence had "inflamed the insurgency."
Bush has refused to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq but has dangled the possibility that some might come home in 2006.
A couple of hundred protesters waved antiwar signs and yelled across the street from the Philadelphia hotel where Bush spoke. They yelled "shame, shame, shame" at his motorcade when he left.
Bush denounced the presence of prisons in Iraq "where mostly Sunni men were held, some of whom have appeared to have been beaten and tortured."
"Those who committed these crimes must be held to account," Bush said.
The Iraqi government said earlier on Monday that 13 prisoners found in another prison in Baghdad, in addition to a secret bunker found last month and operated by the Interior Ministry, showed signs of abuse.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Adam Entous and Vicki Allen in Washington and Luke Baker in Baghdad)
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