WASHINGTON – While the Bush administration had tried to drive down expectations for turnout in Iraq's first legitimate election in decades, by all accounts Iraqis pleasantly surprised just about everyone as voters headed to the polls in droves on Sunday.
Calling the election a resounding success, President Bush said Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy.
"Today, the people of Iraq have spoken to the world and the world has heard the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East," he said, adding that Iraqis firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists and refused to be intimidated by thugs and assassins.
"Men and women have taken righful control of their country's destiny and they have chosen freedom and peace," Bush said.
He also thanked Americans for being "patient and resolute" even during difficult times.
Making the round of morning news shows on the first weekend after her confirmation as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice (search) said turnout was better than expected.
"This election is, of course, a first step, and what it really says is that the Iraqi people are not prepared to be fearful and intimidated and kept from their right to exercise their voice," Rice said.
She added that Iraqis showed that equal representation is not merely a western value.
"Their bravery and their willingness to go out is really a vote of confidence for Iraq, but it's also a vote of confidence for these values that are universal values," she said.
Voter turnout was expected to be around 8 million eligible voters or 60 percent, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (search). That comes despite considerable morning violence in which nine homicide bombings and mortar strikes at polling stations killed at least 44 people, including the bombers.
Voting in Sunni areas was expected to be lower than predicted, suggesting that the minority Muslims who led the country under Saddam Hussein may not have the representation they would like in the new National Assembly.
Bush stayed in Washington, D.C., this weekend, instead of going to the presidential retreat at Camp David so he could monitor the Iraqi elections. He attended services at St. John's Episcopal Church, across the park from the White House after being briefed on the vote by his new National Security Director Stephen Hadley (search). Churchgoers mentioned the Iraq elections in their weekly prayers.
Bush spent the week urging Iraqis to ignore the threats from terrorist groups threatening violence and to head to the polls. He predicted what he called a "grand moment" in Iraqi history, but he also said in his Saturday radio address that the insurgents would stop at nothing to disrupt the election.
"Yet in the face of this intimidation, the Iraqi people are standing firm ... They know what democracy will mean for their country: a future of peace, stability, prosperity and justice for themselves and for their children," Bush said.
Asked all week how many voters it would take to make the election credible, the president repeatedly said the fact the vote was being held at all made it a success. A FOX News poll taken this week showed that among those surveyed, 50 percent said that 50 percent or better turnout would make Iraq's election legitimate. Another 28 percent said the election is legitimate if under 50 percent of Iraqis vote.
Rice told FOX News Sunday that she talked with Bush about the vote on Sunday morning, and he called it "a great day for the Iraqi people." Several other observers agreed.
"This is a triumphant day," said FOX News contributor Juan Williams, who called the earlier estimated turnout of 72 percent "spectacular."
"The fact that they're having a free election after many, many years is extremely significant in itself," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I think this is the beginning of something big and that is freedom in Iraq."
"The willingness of the Iraqi people to vote under the specter of violence speaks to the power of democracy and the passion for freedom," Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in a written statement.
"Iraqi people were in chaos ... I think this is a newborn day for them," one Iraqi-American who voted in Michigan, told FOX News.
While the results are not expected for at least a week, Bush will almost certainly cite the Iraqi vote in this week's State of the Union address. Aides said he planned his first full rehearsal of the speech to Congress on Sunday in the White House auditorium.
Bush has said that whoever wins Sunday's vote for a 275-seat National Assembly and 19 regional legislatures, he expects the winner will want U.S. troops in Iraq to stay. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the coalition will start to turn over security duties to Iraqi troops in some of the country's less violent provinces. A British Hercules C-130 transport plane crashed outside Baghdad on Sunday.
U.S. officials say they expect to keep 120,000 troops in Iraq through the end of next year, down from 150,000 currently there. Rice warned that Sunday's vote won't end the violence.
"I suspect that the insurgents will try to demonstrate that, despite today's vote, they are still a very viable force. And they are, because they're very, very brutal intimidators, and I don't expect that to go away. But what we're doing is we're working with the Iraqis to train their own security forces," she said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also tempered joy for the occasion during a Sunday morning news show.
"It is hard to say that something is legitimate when whole portions of the country can't vote and doesn't vote," Kerry said.
After the show, he told reporters that the election is also a chance for the United States to begin mending bonds internationally and start considering reducing its presence in Iraq.
"If we do a better job of training; if the training is accelerated and other countries come to the table in the effort to provide and help provide long term security, yes we can begin to reduce American troops. "But those pre-conditions and changing the life of the Iraqis on a day-to-day basis has not happened," Kerry said.
Added Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who has called the situation in Iraq "George W. Bush's Vietnam": "While the elections are a step forward, they are not a cure for the growing violence and resentment of the perception of an American occupation ... I continue to believe that 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 to begin to negotiate a phase-down of our long-term military presence."
While no one expects U.S. troops to pull out anytime soon, the outcome of Sunday's election could affect strategy planning at the White House and Pentagon. So far, more than 1,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and the United States is spending more than $1 billion a week. The president's advisers indicated last week that Bush is going to seek an $80 billion emergency supplemental bill from Congress to pay for continuing costs there.
"There's more distance to travel on the road to democracy and yet Iraqis have proven they are equal to the challenge," Bush said.
Sunday's vote does not install a permanent government in Iraq. The assembly will create a constitution, which the public will be asked to support. Not until December will permanent regular elections be held.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.