U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says Sunday's election in Iraq was important in giving the Iraqi people the confidence to move forward in building strong security forces and a democratic society.   

Secretary Rumsfeld told a news conference Thursday that when Iraqis saw their neighbors start to go out to vote, in spite of the threats from insurgents, more and more people went to the polls and created a momentum that should help Iraq get through the current difficult period to a freer and more democratic future.

"That has to cause a tipping of support for the government, whoever is elected, because of the confidence that all of those people have to feel as a result of seeing so many others of the same view," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld says that "view" is support for democracy and opposition to the insurgency.  And he says the result will be a greater willingness by many Iraqis to help the security forces defeat the insurgents.

"I think that it means that intelligence is going to improve," he added.  "I think that it means there will be more people who will be willing to provide information to the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces about people who are trying to intimidate them and control their cities."

Secretary Rumsfeld says the large turnout of voters in much of the country, except the mainly Sunni areas, has already inspired more men to volunteer to join the Iraqi security forces.  He said those forces are growing, and he repeated the claim, disputed by some members of Congress, that there are 136,000 trained and equipped Iraqi troops in the Defense and Interior Ministries.

He acknowledged that they are inexperienced and many of them need more training, but the secretary said some Iraqi units are beginning to operate on their own with some success.  Mr. Rumsfeld said the goal is to have 200,000 Iraqi troops in uniform by October.  Still, he stressed that more time will be needed to train leaders for the army and police, and to train people in the ministries on how to manage the armed forces.

U.S. officials have refused to set a date for the withdrawal of foreign forces, saying that will depend on such factors as the readiness of the Iraqi troops, the strength of the insurgency, and the desires of the new Iraqi government.  On Thursday, Iraq's interior minister said the foreign forces will be needed for at least another 18 months, and possibly longer.

Secretary Rumsfeld said the question of the development of the Iraqi forces is also related to the development of Iraqi society, which he said has the lingering effects of decades of dictatorship, during which people who disagreed with the government were often killed.

"When that is the case, and you suddenly say you're going to put your confidence in a piece of paper, a constitution, and it will be that that will protect you and your family from being imposed on by the other elements in that society, that is a big roll of the dice," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld says Iraqis realized on Sunday that millions of them are ready to take that gamble.