For President Bush, the strong turnout for Iraq's election yesterday may represent the best day since the fall of Baghdad 32 months ago because all major factions participated in the political process, according to U.S. and Middle East analysts. But the sobering reality, they added, is that the vote by itself did not resolve Iraq's lingering political disputes.
After weeks of an increasingly divisive debate at home that helped sink the president's approval rating to an all-time low, the Bush administration appeared buoyed by the throngs at the polls and the low violence. Flanked in the Oval Office by six young Iraqis, all with a purple-stained finger signifying they had voted, Bush called the election a "major milestone" on the road to democracy.
"This is a major step forward in achieving our objective, which is . . . having a democratic Iraq, a country able to sustain itself and defend itself, a country that will be an ally in the war on terror and a country that will set such a powerful example to others in the region, whether they live in Iran or Syria," he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the turnout was a defeat for those behind the beheadings and suicide bombings. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a Pentagon town hall meeting via video teleconference from Baghdad that the United States should now expect the insurgency to "gradually reduce."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iraq is "going to be a great nation again" because of its defiance. "There are posters in Iraq today that say, 'Vote and you will die,' from the terrorists," yet people still turned out in record numbers, she told Fox News.
But even some Republicans urged caution in assessing the results yesterday, while congressional Democrats called on the White House to use the election to accelerate the transition and create the conditions for the redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq.
In Baghdad for election day, Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said the vote provided a "second chance," but he also warned that the successful day should not be interpreted as a solution to Iraq's problems. "Really, in many ways, they're just beginning," he said in an interview with NBC's "Today" show.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a Persian Gulf military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed. He said the vote is not the long-awaited turning point but rather a trigger for launching a new political process next year that will include amending a constitution. That, he said, will better determine whether Iraq has a chance of emerging out of turmoil.
One looming danger is that the most dedicated wings of the insurgency, the foreign fighters and Islamic extremists, may only become more determined or vicious. "The steady grind of this guerrilla war is going to go on. The elections are not relevant to it, and that's what is going to matter to the American people," warned Juan R.I. Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.
Others acknowledged the election's success but said it came too late. "It's the best moment since Baghdad fell . . . but it's at least 18 months late," said Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department Iraq policy planning expert now at Lehigh University. "The fall of Saddam Hussein was a moment. This is just a moment of relief."
Although Democrats expressed hope that the election marked the beginning of a healing process in Iraq, some called for it to be made a catalyst for policy adjustments.
In a letter to the White House, 26 House Democrats -- including the minority whip and nine members of the Armed Services Committee -- outlined four principles that they said should guide U.S. policy after the election, including a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in the next 12 months and the transfer of key nation-building responsibilities to Iraq's neighbors and the international community.
Bush is expected to try to capitalize on the vote to resist calls for setting a timetable for a U.S. exit from Iraq. He will play host today to a bipartisan group from Congress that will discuss Iraq, officials said.
Among those scheduled to join the president, Vice President Cheney and their foreign policy team are Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), as well as Republican Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) and John Thune (S.D.).
Staff writers Dan Balz and Josh White contributed to this report.