Published October 18, 2005
WASHINGTON – The political process is moving forward in Iraq (search) and "the way forward is clear," President Bush said Monday as Iraqi ballot-counters continued to tally Saturday's referendum on whether to approve a draft constitution formulated over the past several months.
"An increase in turnout was an indication that the Iraqi people are strongly in favor of settling disputes in a peaceful way," Bush said during a question and answer session with Bulgarian President Georgi Purvanov (search).
"They understand that working to find common ground in a constitution is much better for their future than relying upon killers and people who will kill innocent children and women for the sake of creating havoc."
The approval of the draft constitution hangs in the balance. Iraqi leaders said a sandstorm in Baghdad could delay the vote-counting, since ballots are being flown in to the capital city for tabulation.
The Iraqi election commission said Monday that depending on the pace of counting, final results could be released on Wednesday.
All indications so far are that the constitution will pass despite some concern by Sunni Arabs (search) who opposed the charter, arguing that the constitution would fragment Iraq and hand power to Shiites (search) and Kurds (search).
But for the constitution to fail, it would need two-thirds of voters in three provinces to reject the document. Numbers coming from Iraq suggest that in at least two of the four provinces with a Sunni majority, the constitution was winning support.
Bush said the voting itself was encouraging.
"I was pleased to see that the Sunnis have participated in the process," he said. "The idea of deciding to go into a ballot box is a positive development. It was an exciting day for a country that only a few short years ago was ruled by a brutal tyrant."
Turnout in Iraq was considered healthy, with an estimated 61 percent of eligible Iraqi voters going to the polls despite threats to their safety since Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) terrorists had vowed to upset polling. In the end, however, no injuries came to voters who may have been targeted by insurgents.
The commander of Multi-National Corps Iraq (search), Lt. Gen. John Vines, said fewer attacks occurred during the referendum this weekend than during the January election to vote in the interim Iraqi National Assembly (search). Turnout also was estimated to be higher.
Vines said the referendum showed "tangible progress," not just for the democratic process, but for Iraqi forces.
"Running a national election, moving ballots, moving poll workers, protecting poll workers, protecting voters as they vote, that is an enormously complex operation and they had the lead on that and they did it in an absolutely brilliant way. So by any measure, by any way we choose to evaluate it, they performed brilliantly," Vines told FOX News.
Bush, too, praised Iraqi forces.
"The violence in this election was down from the previous election. And one of the reasons why is because the Iraqi forces took the fight to the enemy and provided security, which is really heartening to coalition forces and friends and allies," he said.
Still, all was not peaceful following the election. U.S. commanders say U.S. helicopters and warplanes killed about 70 suspected terrorists in Ramadi (search), west of Baghdad. Locals told the wire services there that at least 40 of the dead were civilians. But commanders say many of the people had been firing on U.S. helicopters and one group was seen planting a roadside bomb.
"In three separate strikes, we found locations where terrorist and foreign fighters were where they were building bombs they were setting [improvised explosive devices], and we attacked and killed and captured many of them," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told FOX News from Iraq.
Despite what many would say is a successful vote in Iraq, some in Washington suggest that even if the constitution passes, key issues remain and political unity may still be elusive.
If the vote is one of rejection, "we have to go back to the drawing board, start all over on the constitution," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told "FOX News Sunday."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., ranking minority on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a network news show on Sunday morning that the Iraqi constitution is a divisive document that, even if approved, leaves major political issues unsettled, such as autonomy for certain regions.
"That means the political unity, which is absolutely essential to defeat the insurgency, does not exist in Iraq," he said.
Still Bush said progress is being made.
"The way forward is clear: The political process will continue with a constitution, if finally ratified, and then an election, coupled with a security plan that continues to train Iraqis so they do the fight," he said.
FOX News' Bret Baier and Kelly Wright contributed to this report.