The United States says the conduct of Sunday's presidential election in Georgia represents "notable progress" over the parliamentary voting last November that was marred by reports of widespread fraud. U.S. officials have congratulated the country's apparent president-elect, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Officials here are not saying that the Georgian election was a perfect exercise in democracy. But they agree with European observers that it was an improvement over past elections in the former Soviet republic, and they say the people of Georgia have clearly shown their support for opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili and his reform platform.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the election was a "significant step forward" in the development of democracy in Georgia. He endorsed the assessment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, that it demonstrated "notable progress" over trouble-ridden past elections and brought the country "closer" to meeting international standards.

"We agree with [the OSCE] that they made notable progress. I think that they also noted some areas of concern, including the composition of the election administration and the separation between state administration and political party structures. We will continue working with the people of Georgia in addressing these concerns so that the parliamentary elections in March can be even better than these," he said.

Though only partial vote returns are in, Georgian opposition leader Saakashvili appears headed for an overwhelming win in an election that attracted more than 80 per cent of the country's eligible voters to the poll.

Spokesman Ereli said the American ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles met Mr. Saakashvili in Tbilisi Sunday night to convey U.S. congratulations.

He said the United States looks forward to working closely with Mr. Saakashvili to support his program of democratic and market reforms, the fight against corruption, and efforts to intensify relations with the United States, Europe, and all of Georgia's neighbors.

Mr. Saakashvili, an American-educated lawyer, had been justice minister in the government of former President Eduard Shevardnadze but later split with Mr. Shevardnadze, and emerged late last year as leader of the protest movement that forced him from office after the disputed November 2 election.