President Bush made congratulatory calls to Iraqi leaders on Monday after declaring the election there a resounding success and promising that the United States will help Iraqis fight continuing insurgency as they build a democratic government.

Bush called Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawer (search), said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

"All agreed that yesterday's election was a great success and an important step forward for the Iraqi people and a significant blow to terrorism," McClellan said. "The president and both leaders agreed on the need to make sure that the political process is inclusive of all Iraqis whether or not they voted yesterday."

Bush also called war ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his two sharpest war critics among European leaders, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, McClellan said.

In brief remarks on Sunday about four hours after polls closed, Bush said, "There's more distance to travel on the road to democracy. Yet Iraqis are proving they're equal to the challenge."

The president mentioned that some were killed while voting, but focused his remarks on the success for Iraq and its citizens. He told of one voter who lost a leg in a terrorist attack last year but still made it to the polls to vote for peace.

"The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," Bush said. "In great numbers, and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy."

Bush on Sunday called three key U.S. allies in the Middle East — King Abdullah of Jordan, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — to talk about building on the Iraqi election and to support democracy among the Palestinians.

Insurgents in Iraq struck polling stations with a string of suicide bombings and mortar volleys, killing more than 40 people, including nine suicide bombers. Bush also said he mourned the loss of U.S. and British forces on election day, including troops killed when a British military transport plane crashed.

"Terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy, and we will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them," Bush said. "We will continue training Iraqi security forces so this rising democracy can eventually take responsibility for its own security."

Bush did not take questions from reporters or mention any military withdrawal.

L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said Monday the elections were "a great victory for the Iraqi people, for democracy and for the president's message of freedom." He said that while the insurgents, "since they are antidemocratic, won't respect the results of these democratic elections," violence was likely to continue.

"But gradually they're going to lose," Bremer said on NBC's "Today" show. "The balance of power is towards democracy now in Iraq."

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, were stepping up their calls for an exit strategy in Iraq. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in remarks prepared for delivery Monday that Bush "needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead" in Iraq.

"Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there; so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done."

In a statement, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, said Bush "must look beyond the election" and start bringing troops home.

"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, Kennedy added.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would not say whether U.S. forces will leave the country in great numbers after the vote. She said the United States will discuss the continued need for outside security forces with the newly elected Iraqi government.

So far, more than 1,400 U.S. troops and many thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives. The United States is spending more than $1 billion a week in Iraq.

Rice said the election went better than expected, but did not elaborate on U.S. predictions for turnout, violence or other measures.

In Iraq, officials said turnout among the 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent they had predicted. Complete voting results are not expected for days.

Polls were largely deserted all day in many cities of the Sunni Triangle (search). In Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open at all, residents said.

"It is hard to say that something is legitimate when whole portions of the country can't vote and doesn't vote," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush's re-election challenger in November, said on NBC's "Meet The Press."