Obama calls Iraq vote 'an important milestone'

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; 4:25 PM

President Obama congratulated Iraqis who voted in national elections Sunday, saying that the apparently successful process will help his administration stick to its timetable to withdraw all American combat troops from the nation this summer.

As Vice President Biden stood by his side in the Rose Garden, Obama said the strong turnout of Iraqi voters -- which occurred despite insurgent attacks on heavily guarded polling places that killed at least 38 people -- demonstrated that "the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq."

While acknowledging that the election "is the beginning, not the end of a long electoral and constitutional process" Obama called the election "an important milestone in Iraqi history." Iraq still must field and investigate complaints of voter fraud, choose its next prime minister, form a government and forge compromise, which Obama predicted would take months.

Still, the election marked a pivotal moment for both Iraq and the United States. For Iraqis, the election was its second since the United States led an invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For the United States, the relative success seems to keep the way clear to continue drawing down forces from the country.

Obama reiterated his commitment to withdraw the remaining U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of August. He added that other units -- roughly 50,000 troops -- who remain after that should be withdrawn by the end of 2011. Currently, there are fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Obama warned that continued violence in Iraq was a probability in the coming weeks and months, but he praised Iraqi security forces that he said are showing growing capability to manage those problems.

In a thinly veiled warning to Iran and others, Obama said that outsiders should not attempt to influence Iraq as it moves to form its second elected government. "Like any sovereign independent nation," he said, "Iraq must be free to chart its own course."

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