President Bush says he is encouraged by what appears to be a large turnout in Iraqi voting for a permanent national assembly.

President Bush congratulated Iraqi voters for their courage in defying terrorist threats and refusing to be intimidated into not voting.

"There's a lot of joy as far as I am concerned in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone on the march to democracy," said Mr. Bush.  "Millions of people voted. I haven't seen all the tabulations of the vote, but we are certain that the turn out was significant and that the violence was down."

White House Spokesman Scott McClellan says Sunni participation in the vote appears to be much higher than in last January's elections, which were boycotted by many Sunni voters.

President Bush has said greater Sunni participation will make the country's political future more inclusive while undermining the largely Sunni insurgency.

Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Iraqi expatriates who voted in the United States, President Bush said the vote is another sign of Iraq's political progress and a vital part of keeping America safe.

"This is a major step forward in achieving our objective of having a democratic Iraq able to sustain itself and defend itself, a country that will be an ally in the war on terror, and a country which will send such a powerful example to others in the region whether they live in Iran or Syria, for example," added Mr. Bush.

White House Spokesman McClellan says free elections in Iraq are a devastating blow to terrorists who he says the United States will not allow to use Iraq to plan attacks against America and its allies.

President Bush again vowed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until the job is done and rejected calls for an early withdrawal, which he says would embolden the enemy and send the wrong message to U.S. troops.