GWEN IFILL: In the third of a series of speeches on Iraq, President Bush today emphasized what he called the three elements of his strategy for victory: Economic reform, political independence, and improved security.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: On the economic side, we're helping the Iraqis restore their infrastructure, reform their economy, and build the prosperity that would give all Iraqis a stake in a free and peaceful Iraq.
On the security side, coalition and Iraqi forces are on the offense against the enemy. We're working together to clear out areas controlled by the terrorists and Saddam loyalists and leaving Iraqi forces to hold territory taken from the enemy.
I want to discuss the political element of our strategy -- our efforts to help the Iraqis build inclusive democratic institutions that will protect the interests of all the Iraqi people.
By helping Iraqis to build a democracy, we'll win over those who doubted they had a police in a new Iraq and undermine the terrorists and Saddamists. By helping Iraqis to build a democracy we will gain an ally in the war on terror. By helping Iraqis build a democracy, we will inspire reformers across the Middle East. And by helping Iraqis bid a democracy we will bring hope to a troubled region, and this will make the American people more secure.
GWEN IFILL: Iraqi soldiers began casting the first votes today in advance of Thursday's parliamentary elections.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Despite terrorist violence, the country is buzzing with signs and sounds of democracy in action. The streets of Baghdad and Najaf and Mosul and other cities are full of signs and posters. The television and radio airwaves are thick with political ads and commentary.
Hundreds of parties and coalitions have registered for this week's elections, and they're campaigning vigorously. Candidates are holding rallies and laying out their agendas and asking for the vote.
GWEN IFILL: In response to a question from his Philadelphia audience, the president said 30,000 Iraqis and 2,100 Americans have been killed in the war so far. A successful election, he said, is only part of the process.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: 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 and our coalition and the new Iraqi government will face many challenges, including in four critical areas: Ensuring Iraqi security, forming an inclusive Iraqi government, encouraging Iraqi reconciliation, and maintaining Iraqi democracy in a tough neighborhood.
GWEN IFILL: Democrats said the president's speeches defending continued U.S. involvement in Iraq have not gone far enough.
SEN. JACK REED: Unfortunately, we still do not know after this series of speeches how long this process will take and how much it will cost in terms of funding and American military and civilian personnel. President Bush discussed the milestones that have been taking place and focused on Thursday's elections where Iraqis will vote for a permanent government. But the president glossed over the difficulties this new government faces.
GWEN IFILL: The politics of security has been a recurring concern in Iraq. Just today there were reports that more than 600 Iraqis prisoners were discovered held in a cramped detention center. Many had been mistreated. Edward Wong of the New York Times has been covering that story and also the run-up to the elections. I spoke with him by telephone earlier this evening from the Iraqi city of Tikrit.
Edward Wong, welcome.
EDWARD WONG: Hi, how are you doing, Gwen?
GWEN IFILL: Tell us what is going on with the elections. What are you seeing in the streets of Saddam Hussein's hometown?
EDWARD WONG: Well, right now I'm at the military base, basically American headquarters here for the unit that is charged with controlling Tikrit. And basically the military's plan for election is to maintain an outer cordon or outer perimeter of security and basically be a quick reaction force, a force that's on call basically if anything happens, if there's a sudden burst of violence and the Iraqi forces can't control it.
Then the American soldiers will come into the streets in their armored vehicles, in Humvees, in Bradleys. They've got helicopters ready. And basically what they want to do is they want to leave the Iraqis in charge of the inner perimeter of security and they're hoping that that will be enough at least to deter most or almost all attacks.
And the Americans prefer to stay out of sight because they're concerned that if they're seen around the polling centers, that that will leave them open to charges of influencing the election.
GWEN IFILL: They've already also sealed the borders of the country, closed airports, closed any other avenues of egress and exit, I gather. So has that had some sort of effect on the anticipation level for these elections?
EDWARD WONG: Well, the closing of the borders has been something that they've done during the last two votes this year, basically during the January elections for a transitional parliament and then in the October constitutional referendum.
They're concerned that foreign fighters might try and slip across the border, say, from Syria, which has always been a big concern of the U.S. and of the Shiite-led government here.
And they're concerned that these fighters might come and try and mount spectacular attacks or very volatile attacks right around the time of the election.
GWEN IFILL: What does the election area look like to an American eye? Is it what we would be used to? We've seen lots of pictures of posters all around the country. Even apparently there were some political debates.
EDWARD WONG: You do see a lot of posters. Just like, for example, in a November election month in any medium-sized city in the U.S. where you'd see posters for people running for the Senate or the House of Representatives, here they're all running for parliament.
And you'll see various faces plastered across the posters. Some might be familiar even some Americans say Ahmed Chalabi, the very controversial former Pentagon ally.
And you will see faces of Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister who worked with the CIA, and has been a Bush White House favorite here. You'll see their faces on posters.
You might see some more -- some that might not be so recognizable to Americans like ayatollahs, for example, in black turbans, long, thick white beards.
GWEN IFILL: Ed, as you know the president spoke here today about the connections between the politics of democracy and the security situation in Iraq. You've written, along with others, about the discovery of this latest detention center where people were found who may have been abused -- Iraqis who were detained. Tell us a little bit about that.
EDWARD WONG: Well, this raid happened last Thursday. It was a joint raid conducted by American and Iraqi forces. They went into a detention center in the eastern half of Baghdad and it turned out that this detention center was being run by a commando unit that acts under the supervision of the ministry of the interior.
And what they found was they found 625 prisoners in fairly cramped quarters in this area. And they found that 13 of these prisoners have been mistreated to such a degree that they required hospitalization. These 13 were brought to hospital almost immediately.
Then there were others -- there were dozens of others who were let go because Iraqi judges determined that there was no longer any need to hold them. And several dozen more were transferred to another facility to help alleviate the overcrowding situation.
GWEN IFILL: In this case and in previous cases where this sort of thing had been discovered these were prisons which were administered by the Iraqi ministry of the interior. Has this raised any questions at all about the Iraqi government's ability to govern in a democratic way that they would recognize?
EDWARD WONG: Well, it definitely raises questions about human rights and about the government's role in human rights and in what many people will see as human rights abuses here in Iraq.
For a long time now, we've heard a lot of Sunni-Arabs complaining that certain government-sponsored squads are coming in, into Sunni areas, Sunni neighborhoods, kidnapping people, putting them into jail, torturing them, sometimes these people end up dead.
Now, the fact that in the last month there have been American raids on these prisons shows that the American military seems to be taking these accusations fairly seriously and it wants to look more into these.
And it does show a sort of schism in a way between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Americans because the Americans seem to be coming down hard on the ministry of interior and on this particular Shiite party-- it's called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It's a Shiite party that basically controls that interior ministry.
There are rumors or talks that basically the militia that this particular party runs basically controls lots of the commando units in the interior ministry.
GWEN IFILL: And are they targeting Sunnis?
EDWARD WONG: There is growing evidence right now that these units, that these interior ministry units, the ones that have recruited militia men are targeting Sunnis, yes.
GWEN IFILL: And does this dampen the enthusiasm at all for these elections as he arrive on Thursday?
EDWARD WONG: We haven't seen any dampening of enthusiasm. In fact a lot of Sunni candidates have been campaigning using this as a campaign issue. They've been saying to their potential voters, "Look what the government is doing. We have to stop the government. We have to stop the Shiite political parties from doing this. So if you put us in power, then what we can do is we can work from within the government to try and curb these excesses."
Rather than actually dissuading people from taking part in the election, it's become a galvanizing issue.
GWEN IFILL: Edward Wong of the New York Times, thanks so much.
EDWARD WONG: Great, thanks a lot.