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US Lawmakers Cautiously Optimistic About Iraqi Elections

Michael Bowman

Four weeks before historic national elections in Iraq, U.S. lawmakers of both parties are voicing cautious optimism about prospects for a successful, if imperfect, democratic exercise in the violence-wracked nation.

Joseph Lieberman is one of a handful of Democratic Party senators who remains a stalwart defender of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein. Speaking on ABC's This Week program, Senator Lieberman said the month of January will bring, in his words, "historic transformation in the Middle East," with Palestinians choosing a president January 9 and Iraqis holding nation elections on January 30.

Mr. Lieberman recently visited Iraq, and says he came away encouraged about the prospects for a successful election.

"I think there is going to be a great turn-out [of voters] in the two-thirds of the country that is made up mostly of Shia and Kurds, and I think there is going to be a surprisingly good turn-out among the Sunnis who want to come out and vote," he predicted.

Senator Lieberman said it would be a mistake to postpone the balloting, as some Iraqi Sunni politicians have urged.

Mr. Lieberman acknowledged violence continues to plague election preparations, but said the vast number of Iraqis are eager to go to the polls.

"The violence [in Iraq] is being carried out by a group of Saddam Hussein leftovers and by al-Qaida-related terrorists," he said. "They represent several thousand people out of a population of 25 million. They do not have popular support. The Iraqi people want to vote."

Similar optimism was voiced by Republican Dick Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who spoke on Fox News Sunday.

"It would be very helpful if Sunnis participated in large numbers," said Senator Lugar. "The good news is that [voter] registration last week in Iraq was very substantial. I understand 2.1 million people came onto the rolls. This was all over the country."

A cautionary note was sounded by Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who said that Iraq's neighbors can boost the chances for successful elections by what they say today.

"That even though this election is going to have a lot of problems in terms of security, that Jordan plans on recognizing the outcome of this election - it takes away any excuses for Sunni leadership to boycott this election. We need that from the king of Jordan. We need that from Saudi leadership. We need that from Muslim countries," he said.

Mr. Levin added that, so far, such statements have not been forthcoming.

Iraq observers say the elections are likely to produce a Shiite leadership sympathetic to, or possibly allied with Iran, a nation President Bush once described as part of an "axis of evil." But Secretary of State Colin Powell predicted Iraq's Shiite population will, as he put it, "stand on their own two feet," and argued for faith in the democratic process.

"What we have to do is look forward, and have a successful election, allow the Iraqi people to decide," said Mr. Powell. "The Saddam Hussein regime is gone, just as the Taleban regime in Afghanistan is gone. We have gotten rid of two terrible dictatorships, and what we have to do in 2005 is build democracy."

Mr. Powell spoke on NBC's Meet the Press program.

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