WASHINGTON — Election day in Iraq brought a rare dose of favorable news for the Bush administration's efforts there but left unanswered whether others will follow.
At home, where support for the war has fallen to fewer than half of Americans, the image of Iraqis risking their lives to cast ballots is likely to increase public sympathy. Abroad, where the U.S.-led mission has been widely questioned, there were signs that allies would judge the election positively, possibly conferring the international legitimacy that has been a prime U.S. goal.
But U.S. officials stopped short of calling the vote a turning point, perhaps remembering that the jubilation that followed the capture of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in December 2003 melted as the insurgency raged on. Exulting in the voter turnout Sunday, President Bush also said, "There's more distance to travel on the road to democracy."
Despite the exhilaration, the election may do little to win international support, assure a friendly government in Baghdad or prevent the spread of civil strife.
World leaders usually look to the United Nations to help them make sense of elections in troubled regions. The U.N. election team for Iraq is already making it clear that it considers the balloting fair, even though Iraq was too dangerous to permit the presence of international observers.
"They're voting for the day when they're going to take their destiny in hand," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.
Such judgments could serve to soften public opposition in Europe and the Middle East to the U.S. presence in Iraq. U.S. officials have said they are eager to change European attitudes, and Bush plans to make it a top priority of his second term.
But even with international blessings, the balloting is unlikely to persuade balky European and Arab powers to do much more on the ground to support the U.S. effort, diplomats said. Many predicted that those who opposed the war would not soften their stance until Iraq had moved much further toward independence.
"Most people around the world really hoped, I suppose, for some good results in Iraq. We will receive very little credit for it initially," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Any boost to American diplomacy from the election will probably be marginal, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Even amid worldwide praise, the balloting will probably come under fire from commentators in the Arab media, many of whom don't believe that a fair election is possible with an outside military presence, and from Iraqis disappointed in the outcome, he said. "We can be certain that many people will deny its legitimacy," Clawson said.
Large vote totals for a few political slates also could inspire suspicions about the election, even though the results will be affected by the many Sunni Muslim Arabs who boycotted. If a sizable share of seats in the 275-member transitional national assembly goes to interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's slate or the dominant Shiite Muslim coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, it "could be interpreted by some people as evidence of vote rigging and fraud," said Larry Diamond, a former advisor to the U.S.-led provisional government in Iraq and a Stanford expert on democratic development.
The election may lead to more calls for the U.S. to pull out of the country as Iraq moves toward self-government.
On the eve of the vote, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin reiterated France's support for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraq, and two former British foreign ministers, Douglas Hurd and Robin Cook, urged withdrawals of U.S. and British forces. Last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said U.S. troops should begin an immediate, phased withdrawal. His call was echoed by several Democrats in Congress.
Although Sunday's events suggested that most Iraqis wanted a direct say in their new government, their votes were not necessarily an endorsement of U.S. goals or the kind of government the White House would prefer.
Lugar, in fact, said he thought the new leadership, which was likely to have strong ties to Islam, was "going to give discomfort to some Americans."
Although Bush said that the election had sounded "the voice of freedom in the Middle East," it signaled only the beginning of arguments among Iraqis about how much American-style freedom would be permitted. In the upcoming deliberations over a new constitution, Iraqis will debate the official role of Islam, which some parties want to give a prominent place in governing society, and the rights of minority Kurds and Sunni Arabs in a country dominated for the first time by Iraqi Shiites.
Bush has portrayed the election as similar to Colonial America's first steps toward democracy. But some observers fear that the proper analogy is the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which convinced the aggrieved Southern minority that it would only lose by remaining part of the union, triggering the Civil War.
In trying to integrate Sunni Arabs, who apparently stayed away from the polls in great numbers, Iraq faced "a very serious political problem," Diamond said. "If the country slides toward civil war, I don't see how the United States benefits."
The transitional period of the next several months "is going to be difficult the entire way," Clawson said.