WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday rejected calls for postponement of Iraq's parliamentary election, insisting that "it's time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls."
Adhering to established administration policy, the president's declaration also sent an unwavering signal in the face of calls for delay from Sunni Muslim and Kurdish figures in Iraq, as well as some other leaders around the world.
"We are very firm on the Jan. 30 date," Bush told reporters at the White House.
Both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in separate appearances Thursday, joined in Bush's demand that the election go forward as planned. The administration push came after interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni tribal leader, added his support for holding the election as planned despite pleas for postponement by those concerned that violence would make voting impossible in large areas of the country.
"Holding elections is the only salvation for many of Iraq's problems," Yawer said Wednesday at a news conference. "There is a moral and legal obligation to hold the elections before 31st January, 2005."
At the same time, Yawer joined many Sunni politicians in acknowledging that security problems could keep many people from voting in some areas.
Last week, when Sunni and Kurdish party leaders said they would not take part in the January elections, Bush said he hoped the balloting would continue on schedule. The president has toughened his language since interim Iraqi government leaders and top Shiite Muslim religious figures, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, lined up in favor of the January date.
Bush predicted Thursday that the election would be a turning point in the transformation of the country that began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 that resulted in the toppling of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"It's one of those moments in history where a lot of people will be amazed that a society has been transformed so quickly from one of tyranny and torture and mass graves, to one in which people are actually allowed to express themselves at the ballot," Bush said during an appearance with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Those arguing for delay have cited continuing dangers in the Sunni heartland of the country that would depress voter turnout there, resulting in an imbalance of power in the new national parliament that could foment additional civil strife.
Iraqis are to elect a 275-member national assembly, with seats filled in relation to the number of votes received by the political parties and coalitions. Since Shiites compose a majority of Iraq's population, they are expected to fare well in the election after suffering discrimination for decades under Hussein. If few Sunni parties participate, it is even more unlikely that they would gain enough seats to have a significant effect.
The assembly will choose a president and prime minister and oversee the writing of a constitution. If Sunnis are underrepresented, they will be left with little voice in the drafting of a seminal document that could be a blueprint for the country's governance for years to come.
Security is a severe problem in four provinces and in parts of Baghdad where most of Iraq's Sunni Arabs live. Sunnis, though only about 20% of Iraq's population, dominated the political landscape for 80 years.
With the ouster of Hussein, a Sunni, they fell from power, and many have joined the insurgency against U.S.-led forces and the Iraqi interim government. If Sunnis boycott the polls or are prevented from voting by violence, it could undercut the election's legitimacy in the view of the larger Arab world, which is predominantly Sunni.
Although violent attacks are likely across the country, their potency in dissuading voters will be far greater in Sunni areas because there is no countervailing force encouraging people to vote or offering protection. By contrast, in Shiite areas, most clerics are urging people to go to the polls. Sistani has gone so far as to say that voting is a duty on par with proper religious practice.
Powell said Thursday that the opposition to the Jan. 30 date was less substantial than it first appeared. Although some Kurds initially called for a delay, Kurdish leaders now support elections next month, he said.
"Whatever opposition that may have been expressed in recent days, [it] is not clear to me how strong, really, that opposition was," Powell said in an interview Thursday with Radio Sawa, a U.S.-funded Arabic station. "So I think we're on a track to go forward. There may be still some who think, well, perhaps we should delay, but I think the bulk of the opinion is that we should move forward."