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Originally published Monday, January 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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High turnout a win for White House

He wasn't on the ballot, but President Bush won big in Iraq's election. The high voter turnout, despite violent efforts by insurgents to...

WASHINGTON — He wasn't on the ballot, but President Bush won big in Iraq's election.

The high voter turnout, despite violent efforts by insurgents to quash it, appeared to validate, at least in the short term, his policy of spreading democracy first to Iraq and then, hopefully, throughout the Middle East — a gamble that Bush's presidential legacy may hinge upon.

Four hours after polls closed, Bush proclaimed the elections "a resounding success" and vowed that the United States will stand by Iraq as it tries to build a democratic government.

For the Bush administration, Iraq's election surpassed expectations — and offered a rare moment of relief after two years marked by intense debates at home, a bitter international divide, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, billions in mounting costs and far more bloodshed than ever anticipated.

Bush interpreted the election as validation of the foreign-policy agenda he outlined 10 days earlier in his second inaugural address.

"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. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of terrorists."

Bush has made the democratization of Iraq the first step in his mission to transform the region. The administration hopes the election and the positive international response will elicit new cooperation on Iraq and Arab-Israeli peace efforts.

Bush, who watched election coverage on television, called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah shortly before making his statement, according to White House officials.

While hailing the vote as a triumph of the democratic process, administration officials conceded that many challenges lie ahead, chief among them suppressing the ongoing insurgency while the new Iraqi government organizes itself.

More than 1,400 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives in this quest, and the cost to U.S. taxpayers has passed $200 billion.

"We all recognize the Iraqis have a long road ahead of them," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "The insurgency is not going to go away as a result of today."

But Rice said the Iraq election shows that Bush's policies are starting to take root.

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"Throughout this region we are starting to see stirrings of democratic processes in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Palestinian territories," she said.

Democratic critics and some Middle East analysts cautioned against viewing the election as an indication of the future — or overrating U.S. responsibility for the outcome.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts called the vote "significant" but warned that "what really counts now is the effort to have a legitimate political reconciliation that is going to take a massive diplomatic effort and a much more significant outreach to the international community than this administration has been willing to engage in."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called on the White House to "look beyond the election." Kennedy, who last week gave a blistering speech on Iraq policy, said in a statement that the best way to show Iraqis that the United States has no long-term intentions is to pull out some troops now and negotiate a "phase-down" of the American forces.

Analysts also noted that the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding direct elections this soon and succumbed only under pressure from Iraq's most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani.

"It was Sistani who demanded one-person, one-vote elections," said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan. "So to the extent it's a victory, it's a victory for Iraqis. The Americans were maneuvered into having to go along with it."

Other analysts said recent opinion polls indicate that many Iraqis viewed the election as one way to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal rather than as a vindication of U.S. policy.

"They realize that the quickest way to get the United States out of Iraq is to create a new government," said Henri Barkey, former State Department policy planning staffer now at Lehigh University. "Not to vote would mean a continuation of the status quo. So the election is not a vindication of U.S. policy."

Middle East analysts are most concerned about how the divide among the electorate yesterday could translate into trouble when Iraqis get down to forming a government and particularly writing a constitution.

"We shouldn't get hysterical with hyperbole, we shouldn't have a 'mission accomplished' moment," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute and an analyst with Zogby International, a New York-based polling firm. "Our polls show that the divisions are quite deep."

He compared Iraq's election to the 1860 U.S. election, which paved the way for the Civil War after Abraham Lincoln won.

"This election could exacerbate the divide," Zogby said. "You can't have 20 percent of the population feel disenfranchised."

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