President Bush called Sunday’s landmark Iraqi election a “resounding success” and said Iraqis have rejected the anti-democratic ideology of terrorists.
Bush, who went before television cameras to hail the voting, said: “The people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East.”
But he and others acknowledged the insurgency would remain a serious problem and some analysts warned the election for a new national assembly could fan Iraqi political divisions. At least 35 people were killed in militant attacks throughout the day.
“It’s way too early to know what’s going to come of this … There are huge challenges ahead of us,” Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CNN.
But Bush said Iraqis had sent a clear message to the insurgents.
“By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins,” the president said from the White House after the polls closed.
Although participation estimates varied, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iraqis defied expectations to turn out in large numbers for the first multi-party elections in half a century.
Presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution said Bush must be heartened by the successful voting.
“He must feel very vindicated,” Hess said as he pursued his Iraq policy against much criticism at home and abroad. “It’s very hard for the naysayers to interpret it otherwise.”
But James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute warned against getting caught up in “hyperbole” and said a new poll by his organization showed “the election could … end up exacerbating existing divisions.”
Rice, who made a series of television appearances on Sunday, said that while the election reflected “the emergence of an Iraqi voice for freedom,” there would be many difficult days ahead.
Bush rejected calls to delay the polls because of the violence that has killed more than 1,400 U.S. troops since the U.S.-led invasion 22 months ago.
Voting day was marked by a string of suicide blasts that rocked Baghdad in rapid succession for which the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility. A British C-130 Hercules transport plane also went down, killing an undetermined number of personnel.
Rice expressed confidence that minority Sunnis, a key to Iraq’s future stability, would be included in the post-election political process.
“Every indication is that the election is going better than could have been expected … What we’re seeing here is the emergence of an Iraqi voice for freedom,” she said.
Rice acknowledged that Iraqi turnout estimates ranged widely, with the Iraq Electoral Commission guessing that 8 million, or 60 percent of those registered, had voted. This would roughly compare to turnouts in U.S. elections.
Democrats in the U.S. Congress last week accelerated calls for withdrawing the 150,000 American troops, some immediately, others over the next 18 months.
The Washington Post on Sunday reported that under optimal conditions U.S. commanders anticipate being able to withdraw only about 15,000 troops in the next six to eight months.
Rice dismissed what she called “artificial timetables,” saying again that a U.S. withdrawal had “to be conditional on the situation on the ground,” including how quickly Iraqi security forces can be trained.