World Leaders Praise Iraqi Vote

The presidents of France and Russia, top opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq, joined world leaders Monday in praising this weekend's landmark Iraqi elections as a success of democracy over terrorism, but the welcome was tempered by concern that Sunni Arabs be included in a future government.

French President Jacques Chirac (search) spoke with President Bush by telephone, saying he was satisfied by the "participation rate and the good technical organization."

"These elections mark an important step in the political reconstruction of Iraq. The strategy of terrorist groups has partly failed," Chirac said, according to a French presidential spokesman.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) also praised the elections, calling them "a step in the right direction and a positive event," according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

"The conditions for holding the elections were quite difficult, to put it mildly," Putin said after meeting in the Kremlin with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search). "At the same time, I must say that the very fact of it is an important event, maybe a historic event, for the Iraqi people because it is undoubtedly a step toward democratization of the country."

Putin's comments were a far cry from his harsh warning in December that the elections could not be fair amid a continuing U.S.-led occupation.

Iranian government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said the elections were "held freely" but under "difficult circumstances."

He expressed hope the vote would contribute to security in Iraq and hasten the departure of U.S. troops, adding that Shiite-ruled Iran was "ready to cooperate" with the future Iraqi government — which is likely to be dominated by Shiite Muslims.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (search) said the successful election was a psychological blow to insurgents because it demonstrated that Iraqis were committed to democracy. Britain has been Washington's chief ally in the Iraq war.

"Yesterday's elections represent a real blow to this disgusting campaign of violence and intimidation," said Straw, who also recognized Iraqi security forces for helping police the election.

Straw said Britain would call for an early meeting of the Sharm-el-Sheik group of Iraq's neighbors and the G-8 industrialized countries to build international support for the new national assembly.

In Brussels, Belgium, the European Union's foreign policy chief said Iraq's move toward democracy would pay off in the provision of more aid.

"They are going to find the support of the European Union, no doubt about that, in order to see this process move on in the right direction," Javier Solana (search) told The Associated Press.

Areas where the EU was looking to help include drafting a new constitution and training the judiciary and security forces, he said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (search) said the election could lead to the alliance stepping up training efforts for the Iraqi military.

But the issue of Sunni participation — both in the vote and in the government that will emerge — was high on many leaders' minds.

"The most difficult task lies ahead — to make sure the results of the elections have a stabilizing effect on the situation in the country," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (search) praised Iraqis "for the will they have shown to shape the future of their country peacefully and democratically, despite massive intimidation."

But, he added, "it is of decisive importance in this to integrate all political, ethnic and religious groups in Iraq ... no part of the population must be excluded from shaping the common fate of all Iraqis."

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Phil Goff (search) echoed that view.

"Sunni Arabs make up 20 percent of the population and Sunni extremists are at the core of the insurgency," he said. "Ways must be found to involve Sunnis in the drafting of the constitution, which will define power among Iraq's disparate groups, and to give them a stake in the new government."

The vote was to elect a 275-member National Assembly and lawmakers in 18 provincial legislatures. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.

Turnout among Iraq's estimated 14 million eligible voters will take some time to determine, Iraqi election officials have said, but Iraqi and U.S. officials said they believe it was higher than the 57 percent predicted.

But a U.S. official said Monday it appears turnout was low in Sunni Arab regions.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) expressed hope the elections would help spread democracy in Arab countries.

"Iraq will become influential, a factor of change and democracy for all the other countries" in the region, he said on state radio. "This vote can have a positive knock-on effect in all the other Arab countries where there is authoritarian rule, where the situation of women is not one of liberty or dignity, where there are still many steps to make to emerge from the Middle Ages."

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, said it was encouraged by Sunday's turnout among Iraqis, which the Foreign Ministry said showed "commendable determination to decide their own destiny."

In neighboring Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (search), who chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (search), said he was "very sad" about a series of attacks that marred Sunday's voting. At least 44 people died in suicide and mortar attacks on polling stations, including nine suicide bombers.

"At the time the election is being held, people are still dying," Abdullah told reporters. "There doesn't seem to be any real way of stopping it."

Former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev (search) took a dim view of the vote.

"These elections have not yielded much," he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "It is necessary to wait and see the results, but I think all this is unreliable and dubious."