Alastair Grant  /  AP
British police watch as demonstrators gather at the London voting center in Wembley, on Sunday.
NBC News

NBC dispatches from across the globe:

Jan 31, 2005 | Rome | 11:08 a.m. ET

Berlusconi has "I-told- you-so" message for naysayers

Stephen Weeke

The surprising turnout in Iraq’s election is echoing throughout the Italian media as a great success for all those Iraqis who had the courage to risk their lives to cast their ballots. But the levels of enthusiasm still reflect party lines.

The center-right government led by billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi remains one of the Bush administration’s biggest cheerleaders, and is relishing its role as the third-largest military presence in Iraq in the wake of what appears to be a victory for the spread of democracy. The prime minister said, “This election was a success also thanks to us.”

Berlusconi has always been adept at spinning external events into domestic capital and this time is no exception. He took to the airwaves with a litany of “I-told-you-so’s” targeted at the center-left coalition that has been consistently bashing his position on Iraq and his unquestioning support of Bush policies.

Meanwhile the country’s center-left opposition parties had to swallow their pride and admit, albeit grudgingly in some cases, that the electoral swell was a positive event for Iraq and the region, but they tempered any compliments with “let’s-wait-and-see” warnings.

But the most caustic criticism came from the extreme left. A spokesman for the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani said, “These elections are about as real as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction."

Jan 31, 2005 | London | 10:45 a.m. ET

Biggest loss in war tempers British feelings of success

Mark Potter
Feelings of accomplishment in Great Britain about the Iraqi elections were tempered by sorrow over the biggest loss of British lives since the start of the war.

Hours after the polls closed in Iraq, a British C-13- transport plane crashed north of Baghdad, killing 10 British troops.

An Iraqi militant group took credit for downing the plane , although the veracity of the claim could not immediately be verified.

A large headline in The Sun newspaper said, "They Died For Freedom."

Video: More reaction At a news conference, British Prime Minister Tony Blair paid tribute to the victims, and extended his condolences to their families. "They can be proud of what their loved ones accomplished," he said. "This country and the wider world will never forget them."

Speaking of the Iraqi election, itself, Blair said it had dealt "a blow to the heart of global terrorism."

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told a radio interviewer, "What yesterday shows is that democracy is a value which flows in the veins of every citizen of the world, including those poor people in Iraq who have been denied that opportunity for such a long time."

In a country where public support for the war has steadily declined to less than 40 percent, the British newspapers reflected the diverse opinions.

An editorial in The Guardian warned against celebrating a victory in Iraq too fast, arguing, "it would be foolish to draw definitive conclusions only a few hours after the polls closed." 

But, the more conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, presented its lead editorial under the headline, "Iraq confounds the profits of doom."

The newspaper criticized what it called "left-wing commentators" for focusing too much on difficulties in Iraq. "Yesterday's high turnout, in defiance of the gunmen, should be celebrated," the paper said.

At the Wembley Conference Center near London, where thousands of Iraqi immigrants cast their ballots in the Iraq election , there was very little diversity of opinion.

Most everyone there widely praised the elections, and offered strong support for Prime Minister Blair, President Bush and the U.S.-led invasion.

Mohammad Alshakrey, and his wife Suzan Tofik, proudly showed off the forefingers they had dipped in purple ink, a required security measure before voting.

Watching a group of Kurdish men celebrating the day with music and dancing, Alshakrey said, "I hope we move forward step by step toward democracy and happiness for all Iraqi people."

Niga Nawroly, a Kurdish immigrant, arrived to cast her vote wearing a bright purple outfit. "It's a big day," she said. "We could never do this before, and this was just a dream. And now it's come true."

Echoing the same thought, Iraqi-immigrant Halat Hamawandi said, "I feel something new happened in my life. I have dreamed a long time ago to vote."

Jan 31, 2005 | Mannheim | 09:15 a.m. ET

German opponents to war applaud turnout

Andy Eckardt
As the last expatriate Iraqi voted at the polling station in Mannheim, Germany, on Sunday afternoon, Thomas Holzer from the International Office for Migration — the organizers of the election outside Iraq — gave a big sigh of relief.

"I think we can be quite happy with the turnout in Germany," he said. "At the end of the day, we believe that 90 percent of the registered voters will have actually cast their ballots in this historic event."

Nearly 50 percent of the total estimated number of eligible voters in Germany had registered at the four polling stations in Germany over the past weeks. Most of the Iraqis who arrived in Mannheim celebrated the day like a national holiday, often dancing and singing after they handed in their vote.

Noteworthy were the Kurdish women, dressed up in colorful traditional clothes, who patiently waited in line outside in the cold, while security checks were conducted.

Alzaidi Abdul, a Shiite, who is originally from the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah, traveled with friends and family all the way from Lausanne, Switzerland. "Our country's future is at stake and that is why it was important for all of us to come here," Abdul said.

On Monday, the headlines in German newspapers and television newscasts also reflected the historic nature of this election, and applauded the strong voter turnout, especially inside Iraq.

"Millions of Iraqis defy terror" read the front page headline of Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper and another nationwide newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote "Larger turnout than expected — voters in Iraq brave terror attacks.”

Most of the country's leading newspapers dedicated entire pages to the story, giving detailed insight into the different groups that were listed, focusing on the strong role of the Kurds and Shiites in the democratic election.

Despite leading international opposition to the war in Iraq, German officials hailed the elections.

"The decision of many Iraqis to go to the polls deserves very great recognition," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters in Brussels. "The challenge of putting Iraq on a stable democratic footing is one we must all take on together — within the political limits we have set," he said, reaffirming Germany's refusal to send troops to Iraq.

In Mannheim, organizers immediately started counting the votes, the majority of helpers being Iraqi nationals themselves. "We hope to be able to count all of the votes in Germany by Tuesday, maybe Wednesday at the latest," Holzer told MSNBC. "Except for a few small verbal arguments between ethnic groups, everything went very smoothly here," he said.

Jan 31, 2005 | Moscow | 07:45 a.m. ET

Russians skeptical of the legitimacy of vote

Judy Augsburger
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday praised the elections in Iraq as a step forward, but Russians on the streets of Moscow were highly skeptical that the election results were fair.

"The conditions in which the elections were held were difficult, to say the least," Putin told Russian Cabinet members, "Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction and a positive event."

The Russian foreign ministry expressed regret over the low turnout among Sunni voters, and stressed that Sunnis must be represented in the new government.

"The most difficult task lies ahead — to make sure the results of the elections have a stabilizing effect on the situation in the country," the ministry said in a statement. "If other political forces feel removed from state affairs, this will seriously hamper solution of the most difficult problems of the transition period."

Russian television channels also focused on the absence of Sunni voters. Russia’s channel one stressed Sunni dissatisfaction with the results of the election and warned of a split in Iraqi society serious enough to cause civil war.

On Moscow's streets, Russians regarded the elections with great skepticism. Many commented that the voter turnout was much too high to believe, especially given the danger surrounding the polling stations.

"I think that it was faked," Dmitry Lazarov, an 18-year-old Moscow student said. "When there is war in the country, I think that it's impossible for such a great percentage of people to go to elections. Like they do here in some of the Russian republics, and Chechnya, they fake those sheets of paper when people sign their votes, and they make too many of them, more votes than people who voted," he explained.

Grisha Cheredov, a fellow student, agreed. "It's not safe to go outside there, so a few people were just told that they should go there for show. It was not a real election," he said.

Such cynicism about elections is typical in Russia due to its own problematic elections.

Only last year, Putin's overwhelming reelection was marred by allegations of massive ballot box stuffing and voter fraud. Elections in the neighboring former Soviet republics, from Central Asia, to Georgia, to the recent election in Ukraine also were marred by serious fraud.

Other Russians voiced skepticism that democratic elections could be held in an occupied Iraq.

"I think it's a bluff, you know, a bluff. It's not a real election," said Teymi Haslanbeka, a professor of Arabic language at Moscow's Lomonosov Linguistic Institute.

"The American army, they are controlling everything in this country. So now, it's not a democracy. Not in our understanding of democracy," explained Haslanbeka, "it's an import from another country. American democracy, or even a European-style of democracy, you can't use it in the Arab world. Because the Arab world is an Oriental world. It's not a Western country, it's another kind of country. The American Army must go out of Iraq and then maybe the Iraqis can organize something like this on their own the second time."

Jan 31, 2005 |Tel Aviv | 7:36 a.m. ET

Israel impressed by voter turnout, yet fear 'Shia axis'

Tom Aspell
Israeli newspapers and commentators described the high turnout as an enormous victory for the Iraqi leadership and the American government, and an enormous achievement in the campaign against terrorist organizations which made every effort to torpedo the vote.

"It was a very good turnout," said Dr. Ofra Banjo, an Iraqi expert at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, "but it was as expected because we knew the Kurds and the Shia were making every effort to get their people to vote, but we also knew the Sunni turnout would be low.  But what will happen now in the days after the election?  We might see a struggle for power between the Kurds and Shia now, a struggle for influence."

Banjo pointed out Iraq is a long way from democracy yet, and that there are stumbling blocks.

"There was an attempt to democratize Iraq when the British handed over power there to the Iraqis in 1932, and that didn't work," she said.

There is also concern here that Iraq, under a Shia majority, might one day become an Islamic republic.

"Some in Israel fear a Shia axis of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But that could be offset by Kurdish influence."

Zvi Bar'el, writing in Haaretz, said Iran is already suspected of fomenting subversive activity in Iraq to create a political base there, a situation which might, as a counterstroke, tempt the Kurds to push for greater autonomy which would in turn disturb Turkey and Syria with restive Kurdish populations of their own.

As for Iraq's future relations with Israel, it's simply too early to tell.

"Now that Iraq is so dependent on the U.S. which is in a good position to pressure Iraq to rethink its position on Israel, there might one day be a change in attitude. But I suspect that the interim Iraqi government will not touch this issue," Banjo said.

Jan 31, 2005 | Beijing | 07:27 a.m. ET

China voices hope, fears on Iraq’s historic polls

Eric Baculinao

“The polls have closed, but a door of hope has opened for Iraq,” declared a news dispatch by China’s official Xinhua news agency.

“Iraqi voters braved mortar attacks and death threats to cast their ballots in the country’s crucial elections,” chimed in another Xinhua report.

China, a critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, is officially supportive of the Iraqi elections, having voted for the pertinent U.N. resolution and contributed $1 million to the elections efforts. 

Earlier, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson expressed hope that the elections “will be helpful in safeguarding Iraq’s sovereignty and integrity...and will help Iraq form a widely based government.” 

Joining other Asian nations, China also expressed hope the voting will "realize the aspirations of the Iraqi people to be masters of their own destiny and help push forward Iraq's rebuilding process."

Despite some reports of violence on election day, scholars invited to China’s Central Television talk show unanimously noted the “largely successful” elections, with Prof. Gao Shaofeng of the Diplomatic Affairs Academy only cautioning of  “lack of balance” in the interim National Assembly due to the Sunni’s electoral boycott.

“I really hope the political situation in Iraq will stabilize,” commented a participant in an Internet chat room. “This is a real victory for the Iraqi people.The advance of Iraqi democracy cannot be stopped,” said another.

But in a sign that Iraq remains a divisive issue, as it is elsewhere in the world, some Chinese analysts have also expressed serious doubts that the voting could bring lasting peace, with a government-controlled China Daily commentator warning of  a “backlash” from the “violence-tarnished polls” that can “deepen sectarian divisions and even push Iraq closer to a civil war.”

“The picture, though, terribly grim, the bravery of ordinary Iraqis who are prepared to take appalling risks to vote for their nation’s future deserves our respect,” the commentator Hu Xuan added, while cautioning that the disenfranchisement of many Sunnis could "result in anti-U.S. forces gaining more support from the Iraqis".

"The longer the occupation continues, the stronger the resistance to it will grow," he said.

“The elections worsened the sectarian conflict because majority of the Sunnis boycotted the polls,” said Global Times analysts Wang Jie and Tang Zhichao, warning that the situation could “degenerate into a civil war” and even a “break up of Iraq.”

“China hopes that there will be a more peaceful, stable Iraq,” observed Prof. Yan Xuetong, a respected international security expert at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

“But the elections will not mean a peaceful Iraq in the short term, not in the next six months” he warned, noting that the problems of border controls, inadequate Iraqi security forces and continued inability of the U.S.-led coalition forces to connect with the populace would remain.

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