World leaders said Monday that Iraqis handed a defeat to terrorism by voting in large numbers in a landmark weekend election, but their praise was tinged with concern over the low turnout among the Sunni Arab minority.
The favorable global reaction was led by American's closest ally, Great Britain, reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Holt in London.
"I think the results, and the manner of it being carried out, was extraordinary, given the circumstances," said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Even France, staunchly opposed to the Iraq war, praised the election.
"It is an initial victory for the Iraqi people and it is a first important step which was indispensable for democracy and for the political process," Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Europe-1 radio. "When democracy is there, when people express themselves at the ballot box, it is always a defeat for terrorism."
French President Jacques Chirac told President Bush Monday that he was satisfied with the organization of Iraq's elections and that terrorists' hopes have been partly thwarted.
"The participation rate and the good technical organization of the elections were satisfactory," spokesman Jerome Bonnafont quoted Chirac as saying in a telephone call.
"These elections mark an important step in the political reconstruction of Iraq. The strategy of terrorist groups has partly failed," Chirac said, according to the spokesman.
Iraq's electoral commission said it believed, based on anecdotal information, that turnout among the estimated 14 million eligible voters appeared higher than the 57 percent that had been predicted, although it would be some time before any precise turnout figure was confirmed.
About 93 percent of the 280,000 Iraqi voters registered abroad cast absentee ballots in the country's election, the international agency that organized the vote said Monday.
While participation of the registered voters was unusually high, those who registered in a special nine-day campaign that ended Jan. 25 represented only 23 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Iraqi expatriates.
"The conditions in which the elections were held were difficult, to say the least," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying. "Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction and a positive event."
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany — which, like France and Russia, opposed the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein but is supporting efforts to rebuild Iraq — said Iraqis "deserve great recognition for the will they have shown to shape the future of their country peacefully and democratically, despite massive intimidation."
In Brussels, the European Union's foreign policy chief told The Associated Press that Iraq's move toward democracy would pay off in the provision of more aid.
"They are going to find the support of the European Union, no doubt about that, in order to see this process move on in the right direction," Javier Solana said in an interview. Areas where the EU is looking to help include drafting a new constitution and training the judiciary and security forces, he said.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally on Iraq, said he hoped the elections would help spread democracy in the Arab world.
"This vote can have a positive knock-on effect in all the other Arab countries where there is authoritarian rule, where the situation of women is not one of liberty or dignity, where there are still many steps to make to emerge from the Middle Ages," Berlusconi said in a state radio interview.
Still, leaders worried about the low turnout among the Sunni Arab minority, who held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, and some governments urged authorities to ensure Sunnis were included in the nation-building process.
Germany's Fischer noted that, once a new government is formed, the next move will be to draw up a new constitution.
"It is of decisive importance in this to integrate all political, ethnic and religious groups in Iraq," he said in a statement. "Neither violence nor refusing to talk offer a way out of the crisis — at the same time, no part of the population must be excluded from shaping the common fate of all Iraqis."
Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld said in Warsaw: "If I were in the place of the Iraqi authorities, I would offer Sunnis a large representation in the executive, bearing in mind that an internal rift is a threat to Iraq."
Rotfeld said the election was "extremely important" for Poland, which leads a multinational security force in central Iraq, "because now we have a partner that will have its mandate from the people."
The vote was to elect a 275-member National Assembly and lawmakers in 18 provincial legislatures. Once results are in, it could take weeks of backroom deals before a prime minister and government are picked by the new assembly.
Iran's state-run television hailed the vote as "the beginning of democracy and the end of occupation and insurgency in Iraq."
"I hope the election leads to the exit of the occupiers from Iraq," Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi on Sunday to congratulate him for holding the country's first democratic elections in five decades.
Mubarak said he hoped the election would "lead to a political process in which all sections of the brotherly Iraqi society participate and open the way for the restoration of calm and stability," according to Egypt's Middle East News Agency.
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, said it was encouraged by Sunday's turnout.
"Their active participation despite the very difficult situation reflects a commendable determination to decide their own destiny ... and sovereignty in establishing a democratic Iraq," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
In neighboring Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who chairs the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, said he was "very sad" about a series of attacks that accompanied Sunday's voting and left at least 44 people dead, including nine suicide bombers.
"At the time the election is being held, people are still dying," Abdullah told reporters. "There doesn't seem to be any real way of stopping it."
However, Abdullah expressed hope that the poll results would be "credible enough to enable the government to draft a new constitution for Iraq."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was elected last October, said he was encouraged by reports of a higher-than-expected turnout, despite the violence.
"I am happy for the people of Iraq and hope that today's elections will be another important step on the path of achieving stability, democracy and prosperity for our Iraqi brothers and sisters," Karzai said in an e-mailed statement.