President Bush yesterday hailed Iraq's election as a "resounding success" and a signal that Iraqis had rejected the extremist ideologies and terrorism that have often threatened to unravel both U.S. policy and Iraq.
For the Bush administration, Iraq's election surpassed expectations -- and offered a rare moment of relief after two years marked by intense debates at home, a bitter international divide, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, billions in mounting costs and far more bloodshed than ever anticipated.
Speaking from the White House four hours after the polls closed, Bush interpreted the election as validation of his broader foreign policy agenda -- the spread of liberty throughout the Islamic world -- outlined 10 days earlier in his second inaugural address.
"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," Bush said. "In great numbers and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of terrorists."
Bush has made the democratization of Iraq the first step in his mission to transform the region. The administration hopes the election and the positive international response will elicit new cooperation on Iraq and Arab-Israeli peace efforts. Bush, who watched election coverage on television yesterday, called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah shortly before making his statement, according to White House officials.
The escalating insurgency, which claimed at least 44 lives on election day, will continue to be a problem during the next phase of Iraq's transition, Bush acknowledged. But he said that Iraqis have "taken rightful control of their country's destiny . . . and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace."
The Iraqi people, Bush added, have proven they are "equal to the challenge."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said that Iraqi troops had a "good day" in protecting polling stations from insurgent attacks. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, reported that "they've done well in support of their own democracy," Rice said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Building up Iraqi forces is the key to an eventual U.S. withdrawal. Iraqi national guard and police forces set up multiple rings around more than 5,200 polling stations to provide security, the broadest test the new units have faced so far.
But Democratic critics and some Middle East analysts cautioned against viewing the election as an indication of the future -- or overrating U.S. responsibility for the outcome.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the former Democratic presidential nominee, called the vote "significant" but warned on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "what really counts now is the effort to have a legitimate political reconciliation that is going to take a massive diplomatic effort and a much more significant outreach to the international community than this administration has been willing to engage in."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called on the White House to "look beyond the election." Kennedy, who last week gave a blistering speech on Iraq policy, said in a statement yesterday that the best way to show Iraqis that the United States has no long-term intentions is to pull out some troops now and negotiate a "phase-down" of U.S. forces.
Analysts also noted that the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding elections this soon and only succumbed under pressure from Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The original plan, designed by then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, was a complicated formula of regional caucuses to select a national government, which would write a constitution, and then hold the elections.
"It was Sistani who demanded one-person, one-vote elections. So to the extent it's a victory, it's a victory for Iraqis. The Americans were maneuvered into having to go along with it," said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.