By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called Iraq's election an "important milestone" on Sunday despite deadly violence, praising Iraqi security forces and repeating his end-2011 goal for removing all U.S. troops from the country.
Scores of mortar rounds, rockets and roadside bombs exploded near polling stations across Iraq, killing 38 people, in an apparent effort to scare voters participating in the election for Iraq's second full-term parliament since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Obama praised millions of Iraqis for turning out to vote despite the attacks.
"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.
"But overall the level of security and the prevention of destabilizing attacks speaks to the growing capability and professionalism of Iraqi security forces, which took the lead in providing protection at the polls," he said.
Obama's emphasis on Iraqi security forces' success supports his argument that U.S. troops can leave the country on time, freeing the president to put his foreign policy focus more squarely on the war in Afghanistan.
If the election were to trigger a repeat of the sectarian bloodletting that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in 2006-2007, Obama may be forced to rethink his timetable.
TROOP WITHDRAWAL ON TIME
"We will continue with the responsible removal of the United States forces from Iraq," Obama said, repeating that the U.S. combat mission would conclude at the end of August.
"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 U.S. troops will be out of Iraq," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also praised the security forces and said turnout for the election was high.
"The Iraq security forces have performed superbly. And the turnout is as high, if not higher than, earlier expectations. So all in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us," Gates told reporters, citing information he had received from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.
Obama noted Iraq would have difficult days ahead with further violence likely. He said he was mindful the electoral process was not over and that ballots must be counted, complaints heard, a parliament seated and leaders chosen.
"In this process, the United States does not support particular candidates or coalitions," he said.
"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 neighbor and nation to respect Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
(additional reporting by David Lawder and Phil Stewart)