- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS — Messages of support poured in from around the world yesterday as Iraqis voted in landmark elections hailed by both supporters and opponents of the U.S.-led war as a key step toward restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

The United Nations and leaders from the Middle East and Europe voiced hope that the elections would usher in a speedy return to self-rule in the war-torn country.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush’s closest ally in Iraq, said the elections were “a blow right to the heart of the global terrorism that threatens destruction not just in Iraq but in Britain and virtually every major country around the world.”

Mr. Blair said the “force of freedom had been felt” throughout Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the Iraqis who turned out amid terrorist attacks on voting centers, which killed at least 44 persons and wounded dozens.

“The Iraqis who turned out today are courageous. They know that they are voting for the future of their country,” Mr. Annan said. “We must encourage them and support them to take control of their destiny.”

In Brussels, Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, congratulated the Iraqi people for their “courage and determination” after polls closed, calling the elections “an important step forward.”

“Despite the many difficulties that lie ahead, the elections mark progress toward a transition to a democratic, free and peaceful Iraq,” Mr. Solana said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hailed the conduct of the vote and pledged that the alliance would increase its role in training the new Iraqi security forces in the coming months.

“These elections were a milestone, but there is still a long road ahead,” he said, adding: “The Iraqi people must build a democracy that meets their needs and their desires.”

The French government, one of the fiercest opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, hailed the vote as a “great success for the international community” and called the 60 percent turnout “good news.”

“France never stopped saying, in unison with the international community, that this was a crucial step,” a government spokesman said.

In Berlin, the German government hailed the elections as “an important step on the path to construction of democratic structures.”

The active participation, especially in Kurdish and Shi’ite regions, was a sign of “the firm determination of the majority of Iraqis to take the fate and the future of their country in their own hands,” said a government spokesman.

The spokesman said Germany thinks that “all the country’s ethnic and religious groups should now be associated with the political process.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the Iraqi people had “confirmed their will to fight terrorism, to achieve freedom and democracy.”

“This day is also a success for us,” added Mr. Berlusconi, whose country has 3,000 troops stationed in southern Iraq.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said the successful conduct of the elections would enable Warsaw to press ahead with plans to reduce its contingent in Iraq by about 800 troops.

In Iraq’s Shi’ite neighbor Iran, parliamentary deputy Alaeddin Boroujerdi called the vote a “great step for Iraqis toward an independent and popular regime.”

But former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warned that Washington may “rig the results” or stage a coup to prevent Iraq from becoming a country that is “free and independent and that does not stand next to America and Israel.”

Arab nations anxiously awaited the results to see whether the vote would mark a further step toward democracy or the start of civil war.

“One eye filled with fear, the other with hope” was the headline of a commentary in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

In Iraq’s neighbor Jordan, a government spokeswoman said: “We hope that holding elections in these very difficult conditions will help achieve stability in Iraq, reflect the will of all the Iraqi people and help Iraq recover its sovereignty.”

The president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheik Ahmad Fahd al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said: “I think this is the first step for a stable Iraq.”

The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said that the elections in Iraq were a “sign of its people’s maturity” and that “the international community hopes this day may signify a future of peace.”

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