WASHINGTON—He wasn't on the ballot, but President Bush won big Sunday in Iraq's election.
The high voter turnout, despite violent efforts by insurgents to quash it, appeared to validate, at least in the short-term, his policy of spreading democracy first to Iraq and then, hopefully, throughout the Middle East—a gamble that Bush's presidential legacy may hinge upon.
Hours after polls closed, Bush proclaimed the elections "a resounding success" and vowed that the United States will stand by Iraq as it tries to build a democratic government.
"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," Bush said in a brief statement at the White House. "In great numbers, and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy. ... There is more distance to travel on the road to democracy. Yet Iraqis are proving they're equal to the challenge."
Even so, while administration officials hailed the vote as a triumph of the democratic process, they conceded that a host of challenges lies ahead, chief among them suppressing the on-going insurgency while the new Iraqi government organizes itself.
"We all recognize the Iraqis have a long road ahead of them," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on CBS TV's "Face The Nation." "The insurgency is not going to go away as a result of today."
It was unclear Sunday exactly who was elected to Iraq's 275-member interim national assembly—the body that will set the course for drafting a constitution and selecting a president and two vice presidents—and how the new government will be run.
The government is likely to be heavily Shiite Muslim, which may be unacceptable to Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who were told by influential clerics to boycott the election. The region where they dominate is the center of the insurgency, where the threat of violence was expected to repress voter turnout more than elsewhere.
"It is hard to say that something is legitimate when whole portions of the country can't vote and doesn't vote," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on NBC's "Meet The Press."
Sunnis, while only 20 percent of Iraq's population, held power under Saddam Hussein's regime, and Shiites, while 60 percent of the population, were oppressed. The election turns the tables of power inside Iraq, with unpredictable consequences.
Many Sunnis are unhappy.
"We still think that the win will be for those who came on American tanks or those who were waiting for the tanks from inside, and this is all to satisfy George Bush and his administration," said Sheik Hassan al Nuaimi of the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line group that claims to represent 3,000 Sunni mosques.
Also uncertain was the election's immediate impact throughout the volatile Middle East. Bush talked by phone Sunday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah II, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.
Bush made transforming Iraq into a democracy a centerpiece of his re-election campaign and a focal point of his drive to reshape the Middle East. From the war's beginning, Bush has maintained that forging a democratic regime in Iraq would serve as dramatic inspiration to help transform a region long ruled by monarchs, dictators and clerics into a stable democratic area.
More than 1,400 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives in this quest, whose cost to U.S. taxpayers is approaching $300 billion.
Rice said the Iraq election shows that Bush's policies are starting to take root.
"Throughout this region we are starting to see stirrings of democratic processes in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Palestinian territories," Rice said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.