Iraq’s constitutional vote is milestone for democracy in Middle East, Bush says

President George W. Bush said Iraq's Oct. 15 constitutional vote is a milestone for democracy in the region and the U.S. is making ``progress toward peace.'' As many as two-thirds of Iraqis turned out to vote on a new constitution and probably approved it, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday. The outcome won't be known for days, and the referendum will fail should two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject it.

Bush noted a larger voter turnout, particularly among Iraq's minority Sunnis, than during the January parliamentary balloting. ``This is a very positive day for the Iraqis and as well for world peace,'' Bush said yesterday at the White House.

Bush wants to shore up support for the Iraq war as more Americans question the wisdom of using military force to help bring democracy to the Middle East. Bush's job-approval ratings are at the lowest of his presidency.

``There's no question that having the constitution approved is an important step,'' said Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. ``You'll see a little bit of an uptick for the administration, naturally, but I don't think this is going to turn the tide for them with the public on Iraq.''

Past milestones in Bush's war on terrorism, such as the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and parliamentary elections where Iraqis waved ink-stained fingers to show they voted, have failed to improve the public's perception of success and stability. ``We need to avoid the purple-thumb euphoria after the January election because we saw that it was not enough to produce a stable Iraq,'' said Jentleson, who was a foreign- policy adviser to Democrat Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Members of the Sunni Muslim minority, whose political dominance ended with the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein, had vowed to defeat the charter supported by many Shiites and Kurds.

``Rejection would be a disaster for the U.S., but ratification alone will not end our problems in Iraq,'' said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. ``Even if the constitution is ratified, the insurgents are not going to lay down their arms.''

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, interviewed on CNN yesterday, said the referendum was a ``very important building block'' toward a time when the U.S. can start drawing down its 156,000 troops in Iraq.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the panel's top Democrat, said he expects at least one-third of U.S. troops to be pulled out a year from now. The Iraqi charter leaves major political issues unsettled, Levin said on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' yesterday. ``Without a political solution, there is no purely military way to solve this problem,'' he said.

Bush has rejected setting a timetable for a troop pullout, saying in his Oct. 15 radio address that the U.S. ``will not run'' from Iraq. Almost 2,000 American troops have died and about 15,000 have been wounded since the invasion.

There were few outbreaks of violence on polling day, news agencies reported. Insurgents sabotaged power lines in the capital on the eve of the vote, leaving the city without electricity, reports Bloomberg. I.L.

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