- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

President Bush yesterday congratulated millions of Iraqi citizens for ignoring death threats and intimidation from insurgents and risking their lives to cast historic votes during the country’s first free election.

Mr. Bush called yesterday’s turnout at polls, estimated at about 60 percent of eligible voters nationwide with higher percentages among Iraq’s Kurds and Shi’ites and Iraqis living abroad, a “resounding success.”

“Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East,” Mr. Bush said.

“Across Iraq today, men and women have taken rightful control of their country’s destiny, and they have chosen a future of freedom and peace,” Mr. Bush said.

The president made his remarks from the White House just after 1 p.m., four hours after polls closed in the country.

Violence promised by terrorists came in the form of nine suicide bombings and several mortar and other attacks that killed 44 persons across Iraq, most of them in Baghdad.

Mr. Bush mourned the loss of Iraqi lives and American and British military personnel killed yesterday and said, “Their sacrifices were made in a vital cause of freedom, peace in a troubled region and a more secure future for us all.

“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 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,” Mr. Bush said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that some violence was expected and that the election was “not perfect.”

“But the Iraqis have taken a huge step forward. And they have hard work ahead of them, but this is a great day for the Iraqi people,” she told “Fox News Sunday.”

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in his first extensive interview since his presidential election defeat, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, questioned the legitimacy of the election.

“It is significant that there is a vote in Iraq, but no one in the United States or in the world — and I’m confident of what the world response will be — no one in the United States should try to overhype this election,” Mr. Kerry said.

The Massachusetts senator also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election because of low turnout, especially among Sunnis, who are a minority but were in power under the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunni leaders called for a boycott of the election.

“It’s hard to say that something is legitimate when a whole portion of the country can’t vote and doesn’t vote,” Mr. Kerry said.

Asked by host Tim Russert whether Iraq is less of a terrorist threat to the United States than two years ago, Mr. Kerry responded, “No, it’s more. And, in fact, I believe the world is less safe today than it was 2 years ago.”

Mr. Kerry agreed that the United States is safer with the new Iraqi government rather than Saddam in power, but repeated his campaign criticisms that the United Nations should be fully involved “to really make America safe.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, also downplayed the vote, saying yesterday that Mr. 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 negotiate further withdrawals, said Mr. Kennedy, repeating his diagnosis from a Washington speech on Thursday.

Mr. Kennedy then called for an immediate announcement of a timetable to withdraw American combat forces.

“At least 12,000 American troops, probably more, should leave at once to send a strong signal about our intentions and to ease the pervasive sense of occupation,” he said.

Miss Rice said American troops will leave when their task is finished — when enough Iraqi security forces are trained and prepared to protect their new government.

“It’s heartening to see how well they have performed today in support of these elections. And when they are trained and when we can step back, you can be certain that America wants to stay no longer than necessary,” she told ABC’s “This Week.”

“Our forces are there under a United Nations mandate. They are there with coalition forces, because the Iraqis believe that they need them. We’re going to be working with the new government to determine how the security picture should look after these elections, but we need to finish this job,” Miss Rice said.

In an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Miss Rice cautioned that “we all recognize the Iraqis have a long road ahead of them” and that “the insurgency is not going to go away as a result of today.”

Several Democrats also criticized Mr. Kennedy’s demands for a troop withdrawal, with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, calling them “premature.”

“I think pulling American forces out now would be, quite frankly, a serious mistake,” Mr. Biden, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on “Face the Nation.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, agreed with Mr. Biden, saying that “to cut and run at this juncture would be a terrible mistake.”

“We’ve planted our flag,’ Mr. Bayh said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think that we need to be successful now, and unfortunately, that’s going to require our presence for some time.”

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said during an appearance on CNN’s “Late Edition” that it was too early to talk about a troop withdrawal, calling it “putting the cart a little bit ahead of the horse.”

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