WASHINGTON – With first lady Laura Bush on her way to Afghanistan to meet with newly emerging women's groups and President Hamid Karzai, President Bush stayed at home Tuesday to salute the growth of democracy in Iraq.
Bush congratulated Iraqi voters who went to the polls in January to pick a Transitional National Assembly (search) to develop an Iraqi constitution. A group of Iraqis who cast ballots in the United States as well as several Iraqi religious leaders joined the president at the White House.
"I want to thank you for your strong belief in democracy and freedom. It's a belief that, with their vote, the Iraqi people signaled to the world that they intend to claim their liberty and build a future of freedom for their country. And it was a powerful signal," Bush said from the Rose Garden.
The election on Jan. 30 was considered by many a success after more than 8 million of 14 million eligible voters braved insurgents' threats and voted in that country's first free election in 50 years. The president praised the turnout and especially the number of women who voted and are participating in the Iraqi assembly. Eighty of the 275 National Assembly members are women.
"The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could: making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East," he said.
Bush had called the vote a sign of liberty spreading across the Mideast. Other nations, including Afghanistan and voters in the Palestinian territories, have also gone to the polls in the past few months. Bush praised pro-democratic reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and peaceful demonstrations in Lebanon.
"The trend is clear: freedom is on the march," Bush said.
But, with the National Assembly having convened earlier this month and recessing Tuesday without agreeing to a president and a prime minister, concern has been voiced about whether democracy will succeed.
The national assembly must first pick leaders before developing its constitution, which will be voted on in October. Afterward, candidates will run for seats in a permanent assembly. On Tuesday, assemblymen trying to form a coalition government cut state run television from broadcasting after the meeting devolved into bickering. They are set to meet again on Sunday.
Last Sunday, the top U.S. commander overseeing Iraq (search) — Gen. John Abizaid (search) — expressed concern over delays in the National Assembly to form a government. He said the longer it lasts, the more chance there is of "escalated violence."
Despite the disputes in Baghdad, Bush said a democratic Iraq will allow differences to be "resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation." He added that the United States was confident that the new government would be "inclusive, would respect human rights and would uphold fundamental freedoms for all Iraqis."
Still some critics, including former Democratic Sen. Don Riegle, said the cost of the violence toward U.S. troops and declining international support for security operations there demands that measures be taken by both the Bush administration and members of the national assembly.
"I think we need a timetable to start bringing home American troops and if we had that, maybe the Iraqis would do a better job of putting themselves together and trying to form a government," Riegle told FOX News.
But former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bob Walker said setting up a democracy is a "hard thing" and Bush is being realistic in his assessment that "starting freedom is the calling of our time."
"This is an important mission for this country, it is an important part of establishing a peaceful world for the future," Walker said.
Bush noted that 145,000 Iraqi troops are now trained in security and are taking the lead in offensive operations in Baghdad, Samarra and Mosul.
Others have also suggested that Bush's emphasis on building democracy abroad has been a deliberate effort to overlook the real reason the United States was said to have waged war on Iraq — weapons of mass destruction.
But Brian Bennett, the Washington correspondent for Time magazine, said the clamor over who will lead the nation is a sign of democracy at work.
"That is politics in action. You have a situation in which the minority party is having to negotiate with the majority party in order to bring a government and put it into place," Bennett told FOX News. "The amount of news that has come out in the Middle East about either elections in Iraq or pro-democracy rumblings in other countries has definitely succeeded in quieting any of the criticism about the lack of weapons of mass destruction that were found in Iraq, which doesn't mean it isn't an important issue."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.