'Growing capability'

Scores of mortar rounds, rockets and roadside bombs exploded near polling stations across Iraq on Sunday, leaving dozens dead in an apparent effort to scare voters from participating in the election for Iraq's second full-term parliament since the 2003 US invasion.

"As expected, there were some incidents of violence as al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists tried to disrupt Iraq's progress by murdering innocent Iraqis who were exercising their democratic rights," Obama told reporters at the White House.

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"But overall the level of security and the prevention of destabilising attacks speaks to the growing capability and professionalism of Iraqi security forces, which took the lead in providing protection at the polls," he said.

The big turnout and limited violence were seen as key to the planned withdrawal of American combat forces by 31 August, a deadline which Obama pledged to meet on Sunday.

The US president also reiterated his pledge to follow through with the subsequent pullout of all the remaining 50,000 US troops by the end of next year.

"We will continue with the responsible removal of the United States forces from Iraq," Obama said.

"We will continue to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, carry out targeted counterterrorism operations with our Iraqi partners and protect our forces and civilians.

"And by the end of the next year, all US troops will be out of Iraq," he said.

Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, also praised the Iraqi security forces as having "performed superbly".

"All in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us," Gates told reporters on Sunday, citing information he had received from the US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

Uncertainty remains

Obama repeated that 'by the end of the next year, all US troops will be out of Iraq' [EPA]

But Larry Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state, told Al Jazeera that there was a lot of uncertainty with such a "massive reset" in Iraq.
 
"When you put 6000 candidates up for 325 positions, you are going to have a massive political reset, and the last time we had such a massive reset in 2005, violence followed," he noted.

In the 2005 election, Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the vote and before a new government could be formed an important Shia mosque was bombed in Samarra, setting in motion two years of sectarian bloodshed that took the country to the verge of civil war.
 
Obama warned that the electoral process was not over - ballots must be counted, complaints heard, a parliament seated and leaders chosen.

"All of these important steps will take time. Not weeks, but months," he said, adding: "But like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq must be free to chart its own course.

"No one should seek to influence, exploit, or disrupt this period of transition. Now is the time for every neighbour and nation to respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Wilkerson concurred that it would, in the long run, be up to regional powers "to ensure Iraq becomes stable".

But the bigger problem for the US, he said, was that it is "virtually bankrupt" being "caught up in two wars that are draining this country".