updated 1/31/2005 5:36:33 AM ET 2005-01-31T10:36:33

World leaders said Monday that Iraqis handed a defeat to terrorism by voting in large numbers in landmark weekend elections, but their welcome was tinged with concern over the low turnout among the Sunni Arab minority.

“It is an initial victory for the Iraqi people and it is a first important step which was indispensable for democracy and for the political process,” French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Europe-1 radio. “When democracy is there, when people express themselves at the ballot box, it is always a defeat for terrorism.”

Iraq’s electoral commission said it believed, based on anecdotal information, that turnout among the estimated 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it would be some time before any precise turnout figure was confirmed.

“The Iraqis deserve great recognition for the will they have shown to shape the future of their country peacefully and democratically, despite massive intimidation,” said Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, which, like France, opposed the U.S.-led war in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein.

EU promises more aid
In Brussels, the European Union’s foreign policy chief said Iraq’s move toward democracy would pay off in the provision of more aid.

“They are going to find the support of the European Union, no doubt about that, in order to see this process move on in the right direction,” Javier Solana told The Associated Press. Areas where the EU is looking to help include drafting a new constitution and training the judiciary and security forces, he said.

Concerns about legitimacy
Still, leaders worried about the low turnout among the Sunni Arab minority, who held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, and some governments urged authorities to ensure Sunnis were included in the nation-building process.

Fischer noted that, once a new government is formed, the next move will be to draw up a new Iraqi constitution.

“It is of decisive importance in this to integrate all political, ethnic and religious groups in Iraq,” he said in a statement. “Neither violence nor refusing to talk offer a way out of the crisis — at the same time, no part of the population must be excluded from shaping the common fate of all Iraqis.”

In New Zealand, Foreign Minister Phil Goff echoed that view.

“Sunni Arabs make up 20 percent of the population and Sunni extremists are at the core of the insurgency,” he said. “Ways must be found to involve Sunnis in the drafting of the constitution, which will define power among Iraq’s disparate groups, and to give them a stake in the new government.”

The vote was to elect a 275-member National Assembly and lawmakers in 18 provincial legislatures. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.

Turnout sparks hope
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said it was encouraged by Sunday’s turnout among Iraqis.

“Their active participation despite the very difficult situation reflects a commendable determination to decide their own destiny ... and sovereignty in establishing a democratic Iraq,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.

In neighboring Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, said he was “very sad” about a series of attacks that accompanied Sunday’s voting. At least 44 people died in suicide and mortar attacks on polling stations, including nine suicide bombers.

“At the time the election is being held, people are still dying,” Abdullah told reporters. “There doesn’t seem to be any real way of stopping it.”

However, Abdullah expressed hope that the poll results would be “credible enough to enable the government to draft a new constitution for Iraq.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the winner of his country’s historic elections last October, said he was encouraged by reports of a higher-than-expected turnout, despite the violence.

“I am happy for the people of Iraq and hope that today’s elections will be another important step on the path of achieving stability, democracy and prosperity for our Iraqi brothers and sisters,” Karzai said in an e-mailed statement.

“The people have refused to let the threats of terrorists deprive them of their right to vote,” Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said. “This is a time of courage and an absolute will for democracy and peace.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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