WASHINGTON — President Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of Iraq vowed in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday that Iraq would hold free elections as scheduled in January, even though Bush acknowledged the "persistent violence" in some parts of the country and Allawi conceded that the elections "may not be perfect."

Similarly, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke openly for the first time on Thursday about the possibility that the January elections might be held only in parts of Iraq.

"Let's say you tried to have an election, and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country, but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," Rumsfeld said at a hearing on Capitol Hill. "Well, that's so be it. Nothing's perfect in life."

But on a day when both Republicans and Democrats used Allawi to reinforce starkly opposed campaign messages about Iraq, Bush and his ally presented, overall, a rosy picture of the country. In contrast, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, seized on the visit to paint a bleak portrait of Iraq and a Bush administration in disarray.

Republicans in Utah's congressional delegation were predictably effusive in their praise of Allawi and America's role in Iraq.

Sen. Orrin Hatch called an address by Allawi to Congress "powerful," adding, "The prime minister was direct in his gratitude for the U.S. contribution and sacrifice to liberate his country from tyranny.

"He was compelling in his declaration that the Iraqi people are determined to move forward in assuming their security and in conducting free and fair elections," he said. "And he is committed to his government's partnership to fighting terrorism in the region and in the world."

Sen. Bob Bennett, who met Allawi earlier in the summer, was also impressed, saying the prime minister "gave a good speech today and reinforced what we've known — there is steady progress in Iraq, Iraqi support for the United States and President Bush remains strong, and the successes in the country continue to prove the skeptics wrong."

Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in the delegation, was more cautious.

"Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi's comments to Congress today come at a time when U.S. forces continue to face challenges in Iraq," he said. "We must remember that the road ahead is treacherous, and though there are some successes, this is not an easily resolved situation."

By the end of the day, it was clear that Allawi's visit to Washington, his first as Iraq's interim prime minister, was not simply a state visit but a politically charged moment with the debate on the course of the war intensifying.

"I stand here today as the prime minister of a country emerging finally from dark ages of violence, aggression, corruption and greed," Allawi told a joint session of Congress before his appearance at the White House, using language that echoed Bush's campaign speeches about Iraq. "Like almost every Iraqi, I have many friends who were murdered, tortured or raped by the regime of Saddam Hussein."

In the Rose Garden two hours later, Allawi and Bush continually cited progress in a nation that has been plagued by an emboldened insurgency, suicide bombings and the recent beheadings of two American hostages. "You can understand it's tough and still be optimistic," Bush said. "You can understand how hard it is and believe we'll succeed."

Allawi, a former neurologist with close ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, was selected as interim prime minister in May by a U.N. envoy under heavy pressure from the United States. He said in the Rose Garden that every day he receives a threat on his life and that in the past month he has learned of four conspiracies to kill him.

Bush, in his enthusiasm to portray what he called progress in Iraq, went so far as to say that polls there asking people whether the country was on the right or wrong track showed more positive results than similar polls in the United States.

"I saw a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America," Bush said, chuckling. "It's pretty darn strong. I mean, the people see a better future."

A Kerry campaign spokesman, Joe Lockhart, responded that Bush must be "unhinged from reality" to cite such a poll.

Kerry, at a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, said that Allawi was not making sense, pointing in particular to his assertion to Congress that the terrorists in Iraq were on the defensive.

"I think the prime minister is, obviously, contradicting his own statement of a few days ago where he said the terrorists are pouring into the country," Kerry said. "The prime minister and the president are here, obviously, to put their best face on the policy. But the fact is that the CIA estimates, the reporting, the ground operations and the troops all tell a different story."

Bush in turn used his 47-minute appearance with Allawi to implicitly criticize what his campaign has called Kerry's many flip-flops on Iraq.

"I think it's very important for the American president to mean what he says," Bush said. "That's why I understand that the enemy could misread what I say." He added: "I don't want them to be emboldened by any confusion or doubt. I don't want them to think that well, maybe all they got to do is attack and we'll shirk our duty."

The president also said that he and Allawi expected violence to escalate as the January elections draw closer, and that if the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. John P. Abizaid, asked him for more troops to secure the nation ahead of the election, "I would listen to him."

Abizaid told members of Congress on Wednesday that he anticipated the need for more Iraqi or international troops to help with the elections, but he did not rule out adding to the current 140,000 American troops in Iraq.

The president, when asked about Abizaid's statement, replied: "He was in my office this morning. He didn't say that to me, but if he were to say that, I'd listen to him. Just like I've said all along, that when our commanders say that they need support, they'll get support because we're going to succeed in this mission."

Top Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that as soon as Allawi took office in June he began moving to beef up Iraqi security forces, increasing the target for their eventual numbers and seeking to add armored units. A significant part of the administration's recently requested shift of spending from reconstruction to security would be used to pay for that plan, the officials said.

Republicans and Democrats dueled through the day on nearly every statistic put forth about Iraq.

Bush and Allawi asserted in the Rose Garden that there were nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers, police and other security officials in the country. But Kerry said that only 5,000 Iraqi soldiers had been trained.

t-->Contributing: Jerry D. Spangler, Deseret Morning News