But the president and his colleagues have stopped short of declaring an end to the occupation of Iraq by US and collation forces.

In his weekly radio addres, the US president again sounded his rallying call in the same breath as congratulating the Iraqi people for choosing to face-down terror threats during Sunday’s election.

“In great numbers and under great risk, Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists,” Mr Bush said.

“Terrorists and insurgents will continue to wage their war against democracy, and we will support the Iraqi people in their fight against them,” he promised.

President Bush has strengthened his push for democratic regimes worldwide in recent weeks, basing his inauguration speech on the subject.

In response, Jordanian terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released a voice recording saying “We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology.”

Democracy, he said, is “against the rule of God.”

Returning to specific commentary on the election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a round of interviews on US television, says that the turnout had been “better than expected” even if some voters had been kept away by the violence that was rampant in Sunni areas.

“We have to get to a point where this is Iraq’s fight for Iraq, the fight of Iraqis for their own freedom. And I think you’re seeing that today.”

But Rice sidestepped a question about when US troops would start to withdraw, insisting that they were in Iraq on a UN mandate and their mission was vital to US security interests as well.

“We have to finish the work here. We have to achieve the mission,” she told Fox, adding on CNN “I really believe that we should not try and put artificial timetables on this.”

Echoing Mr Bush’s comments in drawing the distinction between democracy and terrorism, Washington’s closest ally in Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, says the election was “a blow right to the heart of the global terrorism that threatens destruction not just in Iraq but in Britain and virtually every major country around the world.”

He says the “force of freedom had been felt throughout the country.”

The Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was one of the first international figures to express relief at the outcome of election day in Iraq, saying ” millions and millions” of Iraqis had gone to the polls despite the threat of death from terrorists.

“It simply proves that as you find anywhere in the world where people have an opportunity to have a say in the sort of government their country is to have, they are enthusiastic to go and vote,” Mr Downer told the ABC.

“In the teeth of an enormous amount of intimidation, particularly from terrorists who are ideologically opposed to democracy, people have defied them and gone and voted and that is a wonderful thing to see.”

“It is just not true that people in some parts of the world don’t like freedom and don’t like voting,” he says.

And UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says Iraqis must now be supported and encouraged to take control of their destiny.

“The Iraqis who turned out today are courageous, they know that they are voting for the future of their country,” Mr Annan says.

Arab countries are awaiting the results to see if the vote will mark a further step towards democracy, or the start of civil war.

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