Live

Watch CBSN Live

Obama: Iraq Elections "Good News" For U.S.

President Barack Obama said Sunday that the peaceful elections in Iraq are "good news" for U.S. troops and their families, and he agreed with the suggestion that a substantial number of those troops could be home within a year.

"I think that you have a sense now that the Iraqis just had a very significant election with no significant violence that we are in a position to start putting more responsibility on the Iraqis and that's good news not only for the troops on the ground but for the families who are carrying an enormous burden," Mr. Obama said in a TV interview before the Super Bowl.

Asked if he could assure the troops "that a substantial number of them will be home" a year from now, Mr. Obama said: "Yes."

The president gave few details, but said "we're going to roll out in a very formal fashion what our intentions are in Iraq as well as Afghanistan." He said he has been talking with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground.

Mr. Obama had vowed during the campaign to get combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

Since the November election, the U.S. and Iraq have signed a new security agreement that provides for all the more than 140,000 U.S. troops to leave by 2012, despite concerns among senior U.S. commanders that Iraqi forces might not be ready by then to ensure stability.

Iraqis voted in provincial elections under tight security this weekend that were conducted with remarkably little violence.

The results, thought still being officially counted Monday morning, revealed a trend in Iraqi politics which could give President Obama even further cause for hope; a shift away from sectarian political parties toward secular groups.

The biggest Shiite party in Iraq once appeared to hold all the political sway: control of the heartland, the backing of influential clerics and a foot in the government with ambitions to take full control.

But the days of wide-open horizons could be soon ending for the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and replaced by important shifts that could be welcomed in Washington and scorned in Tehran.

The broad message - built on Iraqi media projections and postelection interviews - was that the eventual results would punish religious-leaning factions such as the Supreme Council that are blamed for stoking sectarian violence, and reward secular parties seen capable of holding Iraq's relative calm.

The outcome of the provincial races will not directly affect Iraq's national policies or its balance between Washington's global power and Iran's regional muscle. But Shiite political trends are critically important in Iraq, where majority Shiites now hold sway after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

"There is a backlash from Iraqis against sectarian and religious politics," said Mustafa al-Ani, an Iraqi political analyst based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Although official results from Saturday's provincial elections are likely still days away, the early outlines are humbling for The Supreme Council. The group had been considered a linchpin in Iraqi politics as a junior partner in the government that had near seamless political control in the Shiite south.

Some forecasts point to widespread losses for the party across the main Shiite provinces. The blows could include embarrassing stumbles in the key city of Basra and the spiritual center of Najaf - hailed as the future capital in the Supreme Council's dreams for an autonomous Shiite enclave.

In their place, the big election winners appear to be allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to projections and interviews with political figures who spoke on condition of anonymity because official results are not posted.

It's a vivid lesson in Iraq's fluid politics.

A year ago, al-Maliki looked to be sinking. Shiite militiamen ruled cities such as Basra and parts of Baghdad and rockets were pouring into the protected Green Zone, which includes the U.S. Embassy and Iraq's parliament.

4767934Al-Maliki (at left) - with apparent little advance coordination with the U.S. military - struck back. An offensive broke the militia control in Basra and elsewhere in the south. His reputation turned around.

And many voters appeared happy to reward his political backers in the elections for seats on provincial councils, which carry significant clout with authority over local business contracts, jobs and local security forces.

"Al-Maliki ended the militiamen's reign of terror," said Faisal Hamadi, 58, after voting in Basra. "For this he deserves our vote."

The Supreme Council, meanwhile, appeared to stagger under the weight of negative baggage.

It was accused of failing to deliver improvements to public services in the south. Also, its deep ties to Iran began to rub against Iraqis' nationalist sentiments.

The Supreme Council's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, spent decades in Iran during Saddam's rule and was allowed an office-villa in downtown Tehran. After Saddam's fall, the Supreme Council was Iran's main political conduit into Iraq even though the group also developed ties with Washington.

Iran now could face limits on its influence in the south with the Supreme Council forced into a coalition or second-tier status - and also confront resistance from a stronger al-Maliki government seeking to curb Tehran's inroads.

A Supreme Council lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, acknowledged the election mood was against them.

"We controlled most provinces in the south, so we were blamed for whatever went wrong there," he said.

"The elections gave us an indication of what will happen in the general election late this year," said the analyst al-Ani. "Those who lost in this election have nearly a year to learn their lesson and change their strategy. They know now where the Iraqis stand."

Nationwide turnout in the election was 51 percent, said Faraj al-Haidari, chairman of the election commission. The figure fell short of some optimistic predictions, but was overshadowed by a bigger achievement: no serious violence during the voting.

View CBS News In