WASHINGTON - President Bush pronounced the elections in Iraq a "resounding success" yesterday, congratulating the Iraqi people for going to the polls despite continuing violence and taking "rightful control of their country's destiny."
Bush, whose administration made the vote a major test of its goal of creating a democratic government in Iraq, described the balloting as an important step toward his broad goal of peace in the region, even as some senior Democrats took to the airwaves to urge the president to change course or risk an indefinite, costly stay in Iraq.
"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," Bush said during a brief appearance at the White House. "In great numbers, and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy."
Speaking as television footage showed Iraqis lined up to vote, Bush said Iraqis "have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. They have refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins. And they have demonstrated the kind of courage that is always the foundation of self-government."
There were few surprises in the reactions of Republicans or Democrats, and it was not clear whether the elections would decrease the violence in Iraq, something that most acknowledge is a condition for any withdrawal of U.S. forces there.
Some Democrats cautioned that the elections should not be viewed as an unmitigated success, noting what appeared to be poor turnout among Iraq's Sunni minority.
"No one in the United States should try to overhype this election," Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who challenged Bush for the presidency last year, said on NBC's Meet the Press. Calling the balloting "a sort of demarcation point," Kerry said that without stronger diplomatic efforts and international outreach, "we will not be successful in Iraq."
"It's hard to say that something is legitimate when a whole portion of the country can't vote and doesn't vote," Kerry added.
Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, acknowledged that difficulties remained but said Iraqis had shown they could surmount them. Insurgents "will continue to wage their war against democracy," he said, and the United States "will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them."
In the coming months, the 275-member National Assembly must draft a constitution, slated to be up for adoption Oct. 15, before new national elections to choose a permanent government Dec. 15.
"There's more distance to travel on the road to democracy," Bush said, "yet Iraqis are proving they are equal to the challenge."
Earlier in the day, Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Sunday television news programs to spread the upbeat message about the balloting.
"What we're seeing today is what the Iraqis want their future to be. They want it to be one based on democracy - on the vote, not on the gun," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.
Rice told ABC's This Week that the election had proceeded "better than could've been expected"
She denied that Sunnis were staying away from the polls in protest or as a result of apathy, arguing instead that they had been intimidated and would get an opportunity to participate in their country's democracy by helping to draft the constitution.
"It's not surprising that it has been difficult for them to vote," Rice said of the Sunnis. "I think you will see, after this election, an effort to bring all Iraqis together for a better future."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who called last week for the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, said the elections were "a step forward" but added that "they are not a cure for the growing violence and resentment of the perception of an American occupation."
"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," Kennedy said in a statement.
Focus on training
Rice countered Kennedy's prescription. U.S. forces should focus on training Iraqi soldiers to enable them to be self-sufficient, she said, but should not begin leaving before that is accomplished.
"When they are trained and when we can step back, you can be certain that America wants to stay no longer than necessary," Rice told ABC.
Still, some Democrats, while stopping short of calling for immediate troop withdrawals, said they were skeptical about Bush's ability to stabilize Iraq, given what they characterized as poor postwar planning that fed the violent insurgency that has racked the country for months.
"Yes, it's a good day, but we need to see it through to a successful conclusion. And frankly, I'm concerned, given some of the past mistakes, whether this leadership team will be capable of that," Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who supported the invasion of Iraq, told ABC.
Bayh said U.S. leaders "have been the authors of some of our own misery" by making errors in judgment in Iraq, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and dismissing low-level government officials after Saddam Hussein's ouster, and sending an insufficient number of U.S. troops to secure the country.
Lawmakers in both parties said Bush should expect a challenge in keeping the American public and their representatives in Congress supportive of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
"From time to time, there are going to be members [of Congress] who will say, 'We're hearing from constituents, and they're weary,' and we all are weary," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, in an appearance on CBS' Face the Nation. Lugar said he would tell his colleagues that "weary or not, our way out of Iraq is success of the Iraqis, security for the Iraqis, employment for the Iraqis, and then we move along."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Foreign Relations Democrat, said Bush will enjoy public support only if he "changes his policy, levels with the American people, really begins to train people and has a plan for success."
"If he continues as he did in the past year and a half," Biden told CBS, "I believe we will lose the confidence of the American people, and that would be a disaster."