President Bush called Sunday’s elections in Iraq a success after higher-than-expected turnout, and promised the United States would continue trying to prepare Iraqis to secure their own country. The president's critics cautioned that it was too early say whether the elections would bring peace and stability to the country.
Touching on one of his broader policy goals of introducing greater democracy throughout the region, the president said the world had heard "the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East."
Bush praised the bravery of Iraqis who turned out to vote despite continuing violence and intimidation, saying they “firmly rejected the antidemocratic ideology” of terrorists.
Bush: Vital cause of freedom
Iraqis defied threats of violence and calls for a boycott to cast ballots in their first free election in a half-century Sunday.
Insurgents struck polling stations with a string of suicide bombings and mortar volleys, killing at least 44 people, including nine suicide bombers.
“Some Iraqis were killed while exercising their rights as citizens,” Bush said. He also mourned the loss of American and British troops killed Sunday. “Their sacrifices were made in a vital cause of freedom,” the president told reporters at the White House, four hours after the polls closed. He did not take questions.
Bush cautioned that the election will not end violence in Iraq, but said U.S. forces will continue training and helping Iraqis “so this rising democracy can eventually take responsibility for its own security.”
Complete results days away
Officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted in advance by Iraqi officials, although complete voting results are not expected for days.
Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle. In Baghdad’s mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood’s four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.
A low Sunni turnout could undermine the government that will emerge from the vote and worsen tensions among the country’s ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
“It is hard to say that something is legitimate when whole portions of the country can’t vote and doesn’t vote,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
In a statement Sunday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, said Bush “must look beyond the election.”
“The best way to demonstrate to the Iraqi people that we have no long-term designs on their country is for the administration to withdraw some troops now and to begin to negotiate a phase-down of our long-term military presence,” he said.
The Bush administration has a great deal riding on the election. Strong turnout and results that the world views as legitimate could speed the departure of American troops in Iraq.
A stable Iraqi government could help mend alliances frayed by international opposition to the U.S.-led invasion, and Republicans on the ballot in 2006 and 2008 also would be relieved.
Problems with the election could complicate Bush’s foreign policy aims, as well as the success of costly items on his second-term domestic agenda, such as partially privatizing Social Security.
Although the Bush administration has said the mere fact that elections take place is a huge sign of progress, Kerry said the next step is more important.
“What the administration does in these next few days will decide the outcome of Iraq. And this is — not may be — this is the last chance for the president to get it right,” Kerry said.
Rice: A long road ahead
Earlier Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the elections are a first step to a brighter democratic future for a country once held under the thumb of tyranny.
Iraqis will now work to reduce ethnic or sectarian differences, and the United States will discuss the continued need for outside security forces with the newly elected Iraqi government, Rice said.
“We all recognize the Iraqis have a long road ahead of them,” Rice said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.”
“The insurgency is not going to go away as a result of today, but the Iraqi people have taken a very important step in losing the sense of fear and intimidation that has been in their lives for decades,” under deposed leader Saddam Hussein, Rice said.
She said the election went better than expected, but did not elaborate on U.S. predictions for turnout, violence or other measures.
In Iraq, officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent they had predicted. Complete voting results are not expected for days.