U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Sunday's election marks a huge step forward for the people of Iraq. Ms. Rice says President Bush is very encouraged by what he has seen so far.
Condoleezza Rice says Iraqis turned out in larger numbers than expected, defying threats of violence.
"What we are seeing today, is what the Iraqis want their future to be," she said. "They want it to be one based on democracy, on the vote, not on the gun."
She calls it a remarkable day, and says, while the elections were not perfect, and there were some insurgent attacks, the Iraqi people showed their bravery and expressed their will.
"This is a great day for an America that has always been associated with the march of freedom and trying to help those who want to aspire to freedom," added Ms. Rice.
Appearing on the Fox News Sunday television program as the polls were closing in Iraq, Ms. Rice said she has been in touch with President Bush, who is expected to speak out later in the day. She said he is impressed by the bravery shown by the Iraqis who cast ballots.
"Well, he just said, this is a great day for the Iraqi people," she echoed.
The Secretary of State said she has also talked to U.S. military commanders in Iraq who commended the work of Iraqi security forces. When asked how long American troops may remain in Iraq, she said the goal now is to enable the Iraqis to protect themselves.
"We have to get to the point where this is Iraq's fight for Iraq, the fight of Iraqis for their own freedom. And I think this is what you are seeing today," she said.
The situation in Iraq is also being watching closely in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers will soon take up a White House request for an additional $80 billion for military operations.
During an interview on the CBS news broadcast Face The Nation, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said training the Iraq military is crucial. Mr. Biden spoke from Paris, where he will meet Monday with French President Jacques Chirac. He said, during their talks he will stress the importance of European participation in the training effort.
"It's time we reach out and ask those who are capable of helping - like the Europeans - and it is time they step up and help the Iraqi people," said Mr. Biden.
Senator Biden said it is much too early to talk about pulling out U.S. troops. He said a withdrawal could lead to a collapse of order in the country, saying Iraq could split into various armed factions, instead of building a government that represents all Iraqis.