Rice: Iraqi Elections Going 'Better Than Expected'
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2005 As Iraqis headed to the polls, most for the first time in a democratic election, the process progressed better than expected, the newly confirmed top U.S. diplomat said today.
"What we're seeing here, I think, is the emergence of an Iraqi voice for freedom," Condoleezza Rice told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News' "This Week." "Of course, there are many, many difficult days ahead, but this has been an extraordinary day so far for the Iraqi people."
Stephanopoulos noted that different official sources are placing voter- participation rates at anywhere between 50 and 72 percent, and Rice admitted it could be "awhile" before actual numbers are known. "But the Iraqi people have clearly turned out," she said, in her first interview as secretary of state. "And they've clearly done this because they recognize that the vote is their opportunity for a different kind of future.
"They are affirming what we've always know," she continued, "that democratic principles don't have boundaries. They're not Western values; these are universal values."
In Baghdad, Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Barham Salih proudly declared himself a first-time voter, "as all Iraqis are today." "We have never had free elections in this country," Salih told reporters. "It's an exciting moment. Really it's indescribable for me."
In an on-air conversation with ABC's Peter Jennings, who is in Baghdad, Rice said many Iraqi Sunni Muslims would like to vote but are intimidated by months of violence directed against them. "That's only understandable," she said, but urged people to focus on the fact that many Iraqis are voting despite the violence and intimidation.
"You have Iraqis voting, Iraqis finding their voice, you have Iraqis overcoming incredible intimidation and fear to do this," she said.
The secretary said any political process is bound to have high and low points, but clearly "any political process built on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's tyranny is, of course, going to have its ups and downs."
"But look at what these people have achieved today," she added.
Later, on CBS' "Face the Nation," Rice said she had spoken to President Bush earlier in the day, "and he too is heartened by what he's seeing."
Rice also responded to comments Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy made Jan. 27that it's time for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq.
Without addressing numbers of troop levels, Rice said U.S. troops still have a job to do: to train Iraq security forces. "It's heartening to see how well they have performed today in support of these elections," Rice said on ABC of the Iraqi security forces.
"And when they are trained and when we can step back, you can be certain that America wants to stay no longer than necessary."
But, Rice reminded, U.S. forces are there under a U.N. mandate and are working in concert with the Iraqi government. "I just have to say," she added, "when I've seen the pictures of American soldiers in some of the most dangerous parts of the region helping Iraqis vote that it's hard to see that we're not doing our part there to advance democracy."
Rice told CBS host Bob Schieffer that officials were planning to accelerate the process of training Iraqi security forces. "We are going to come to a point where they are on the front lines, and that will be a good day," she said.
She said coalition forces will work with the new Iraqi government when it emerges to determine the "right mix" of forces in the country. "But I'm quite certain that all Iraqis want to defeat this insurgency and get on with building a democratic Iraq. I think that was really the message of today's election."