Sunday, January 30, 2005

Rafsanjani warns Washington may not accept an Iraq that is "free and independent"

News: "World leaders hail Iraq vote as key to restoring sovereignty
01-30-2005, 19h26

- (AFP/Fox News-HO)
PARIS (AFP) - Messages of support poured in from around the world as Iraqis voted in a landmark election, hailed by both supporters and opponents of the US-led war as a key step towards restoring Iraqi sovereignty.

The United States hailed the elections as a "great day" for Iraq, while the United Nations, Middle Eastern and European leaders voiced the hope the polls would usher in a speedy return to self-rule in the war-torn country.

US President George W. Bush said he was "incredibly encouraged" by the turnout, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News after speaking with him. "He just said that this was a great day for the Iraqi people," she said.

American officials were exultant over initial reports of the turnout in the vote for an Iraqi national assembly.

"I think everybody believes it's better than expected," Rice said in a round of interviews on US television.

Rice acknowledged that the polls were not perfect, and that many voters had been scared off by insurgent violence in largely Sunni areas. But, she said, they represented "a huge step forward" for Iraq's transition to democracy.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan praised the Iraqis who turned out despite the simmering insurgent violence, in which at least 37 people were killed after the voting got under way.

"The Iraqis who turned out today are courageous, they know that they are voting for the future of their country," Annan said during an African Union summit in Nigeria.

"We must encourage them and support them to take control of their destiny," he added, in remarks delivered in French.

In Iraq's Shiite neighbour Iran, a top parliamentary deputy, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, hailed the vote as a "great step for Iraqis towards an independent and popular regime."

But influential former Iranian president Akbar Hasemi Rafsanjani warned that Washington may not accept Iraq becoming a country that is "free and independent and that does not stand next to America and Israel."

Rafsanjani said the United States "could either rig the results of the elections," or stage a coup d'etat -- a warning expressed earlier this month by supreme Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Across the region, Arab nations anxiously awaited the results, to see if the vote would mark a first step towards democracy, or the start of civil war.

"An eye filled with fear, the other with hope" was the headline of a commentary in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, setting the overall mood.

The vote was a rarity in the strictly-controlled politics of the Middle East, where there is often just one candidate or the result is a foregone conclusion.

In Iraq's neighbour Jordan, where King Abdullah II warned last week against the risks of Iraq being partitioned, the government was hopeful the vote would take Iraq a step further towards peace and stability.

"We hope that holding elections in these very difficult conditions will help achieve stability in Iraq, reflect the will of all the Iraqi people and help Iraq recover its sovereignty," said government spokeswoman Asma Khodr.

The president of the OPEC oil cartel, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah, also hailed the vote as an important first step.

"I hope they have a quiet election. I think this is the first step for a stable Iraq," said the head of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Iraq is a member.

The Vatican said the Iraqi polls were a "sign of its people's maturity".

"The Iraqi people has been able to express itself and the international community hopes this day may signify a future of peace," said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state.

In Europe, which was deeply divided by the Iraq war, national leaders have tried to pull together over the vote, pledging their support for the political process and help in rebuilding the country after the polls.

As voting got under way in Iraq, the European Union's presidency warned that the expected low turnout of the Sunni Arab minority made it all the more important that they have a say in drafting Iraq's future constitution.

Speaking on behalf of the EU presidency, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn also described the vote as a first step to Iraq retrieving full sovereignty, and US and other foreign troops leaving its territory.

Belgium's Foreign Minister Karel Gucht meanwhile offered to send teams of legal experts to help draft the country's future constitution, also calling for the text to uphold the rights of minority groups.

"Given the circumstances in which this vote is taking place, we should be showing our deep respect towards all the men and women who are risking their lives in order to cast their vote," added Gucht."


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