Successful vote gives president more leeway

February 02, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Not since President Bush stood on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, under that "Mission Accomplished" banner, has he had a better day in the Iraq war than Sunday's impressive voter turnout for the country's election of a representative assembly.

That it was held under extraordinary security precautions should not detract from millions of Iraqis braving the threats of suicide bombers and other insurgents to cast their ballots.

It is notable, and justifiable under the circumstances, that the election was universally hailed as a success before any votes were counted and with only educated guesses about the outcome, which is not to be known with certainty for days.

Although the voting did not take place without additional loss of life -- at least 44 people killed and about 100 wounded, by one count -- fears that the election would be sabotaged by attacks or shunned by intimidated voters did not materialize.

President Bush, in declaring the election "a resounding success," did no strutting and made a point of thanking the European Union and the United Nations, two international entities he disparaged in the past, for giving "important assistance to the election process."

At the same time, he noted that "terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy, and we will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them" by continuing to train Iraqi security forces.

The election, which once seemed headed for postponement in the face of the insurgency, turned out to be held at a propitious time politically for the president, who speaks to Congress and a nationwide television audience tonight in his annual State of the Union address. The applause upon his entry to the House floor predictably will be thunderous, and not just from the Republican side.

The Democratic congressional leadership was quick to press him to spell out in greater detail where the administration plans to go in Iraq, including plans for an exit strategy. But Mr. Bush has firmly resisted setting any timetable, and he won't provide one tonight.

At a minimum, the Iraq election undercuts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's call last week for an immediate withdrawal of 12,000 American forces toward a complete pullout of the U.S. current troop level of 150,000 "as early as possible in 2006."

Although public opinion polls before the election indicated a majority of Americans had come to believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, the president will benefit politically because so many Iraqis turned out to vote.

Yet the circumstances on the ground also dictate prudence in premature celebration as long as the insurgency continues to claim more American lives almost daily. Mr. Bush's Democratic critics may be temporarily muted by the election turnout but certainly not silenced. The how and why of the invasion still fuel the debate on the war, if with less potency now.

Beyond the continuing test of providing physical security across Iraq, questions remain about broad participation in the new government and the writing of a constitution, considering Sunni leaders boycotted the election. Unlike the security question, in which the United States provided the bulk of leadership and muscle, the involvement of the Sunnis is largely an issue for Iraqis to resolve.

With these major challenges still ahead, Mr. Bush wisely will not be declaring "mission accomplished" in his speech tonight. But he can take heart that his basic vision of bringing democracy to Iraq and the Middle East beyond has survived its first major test.

The cost in money and lives, however, has been huge, with no diminution in sight. Still, the president should have an easier time getting the $80 billion in additional war and reconstruction funds he wants from Congress because of the Iraqis who voted in such numbers Sunday.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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