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Iraq election major step forward, says Bush

President George W Bush he hoped Iraq's election would send a message to Iran and Syria.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2005 09:58 IST
Steve Holland (Reuters)
Steve Holland (Reuters)

Standing with Iraqis whose ink-stained fingers showed they voted, President George W Bush said Iraq's election on Thursday was a big step to meeting US goals and he hoped it would send a message to Iran and Syria.

Faced with wide US public disapproval of his Iraq strategy and eager to show any progress, Bush hailed the millions of Iraqis who voted for "defying the terrorists and refusing to be cowed into not voting."

"There's a lot of joy as far as I'm concerned in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone on the march to democracy," Bush said.

He appeared in the Oval Office with five Iraqi Americans who voted at ballot places in the United States and who had ink-stained fingers to indicate they had voted.

Bush is under mounting pressure from Americans to show progress in Iraq that will enable a reduction in US troops next year.

"This is a major step forward in achieving our objective" of a democratic Iraq and ally in the Middle East, Bush said. He hoped Iraq's example would "send such a powerful example to others in the region, whether they live in Iran or Syria for example."

Washington says Iran and Syria are interfering with a drive to end the Iraqi insurgency and create a democratic Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an architect of a war fought over unproved allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, called the election "a defeat for the enemies of the Iraqi people."

"It constituted a defeat to the people who have been doing the beheading, and conducting the suicide raids, and threatening people and assassinating people," he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Iraqi people had shown their commitment to democracy against great odds but cautioned that a successful election was an incremental step forward.

"They've still got a ways to go and we keep our fingers crossed because the terrorists have every rason to want to disrupt what is happening here," Rice said on Fox News.

Cutting troop levels

There are now about 1,55,000 US troops in Iraq, but the United States plans to reduce the force, recently bolstered to help protect elections, down to the usual level of about 1,37,000 early next year.

Going lower than that would depend on the security situation.

Twenty-four House Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and 11 members of the Armed Services Committee, said in a letter to Bush that the elections gave the United States the chance to reduce its involvement in Iraq.

The letter said the US military presence "should decrease significantly in the next 12 months" and its role should be limited to isolating and defeating foreign terrorists there.

Iraq must take responsibility for defeating domestic security threats, the Democrats said, and the United States "must not be a proxy in an Iraqi civil war" if Sunni and Baathist violence against the government continues.

The election is expected to pave the way for establishing a permanent government. The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, said: "Since no single party will have a majority there will be a need for a very broad-based coalition."

But the determining factor for the Bush administration in bringing home US troops is whether Iraqi forces are sufficiently trained to fight the insurgency.

"There is still lots of tough work to do and we should expect the insurgency not to just go away because there were elections," said US Army Gen George Casey, commander of US and coalition forces in Iraq, in remarks piped into the Pentagon from Iraq.

US officials believed the turnout was higher than the 10 million who voted in the October constitutional referendum in Iraq, and they thought that more disaffected Sunni Arabs had voted than previously.

First Published: Dec 16, 2005 09:58 IST