Iraqi Expatriates Begin Voting in U.S.

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Joyful tears and frequent applause marked the start of U.S. voting Friday in Iraq's first independent elections in more than 50 years.

Security was tight at the abandoned store-turned-polling place in this Detroit suburb, with guards checking IDs at the parking lot entrance and using metal detectors at the doors. Inside, an oversized, homemade Iraqi flag hung from the ceiling. One poll worker could be seen weeping.

"We feel happy now. This is like America, this voting," said Zoha Yess, 64. "We want fair, good government."

Nearly 26,000 Iraqi expatriates registered beginning last week to vote here or in the other four U.S. polling places: Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., Los Angeles and Washington.

Adl Almusasarah, 30, traveled from Denver to Nashville, arriving at the polling site an hour early so he could be first in line.

"We pray for the election to go well," said Almusasarah, who has been in the United States for 12 years. "I wish well for all the parties — for all the people in Iraq."

Ayad Barzani, 42 flew into Nashville from Dallas on Thursday night, casting his ballot early so he could get back to the restaurant he owns before the busiest night of the week.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," said Barzani, who has been in the United States for about 25 years after his family fled Iraq because of a crackdown on Kurds. "This is one of the greatest days in Iraqi history. I'm very proud."

Barzani said he chose the Kurdish Party slate of candidates from the 111 choices on the paper ballot. Parties were listed by name, number and logo.

The expatriates here and in 13 other countries — about 280,00 registered altogether — were going to the makeshift polling stations to choose the 275-member assembly that will draft Iraq's new constitution. Overseas voting continues through Sunday, which is election day in Iraq itself.

Elsewhere, many voters in Iran, waiting to cast ballots at a Tehran mosque, said they came out of respect for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, who has called voting a "religious duty."

"I am happier than on my wedding day," said Saja Verdi, 26, an unemployed mother of two. "We are going to a start a new life in Iraq after long years of oppression."

In London, voters and election officials clapped their hands and sang to celebrate the start of voting, and one staff member banged a water container like a drum.

"Today I feel that I am born again," said Darbaz Rasool, 23, a Kurd who fled Iraq in 1994.

By contrast, the scene in Iraq two days before the vote there was tense. Bombers hit one polling place overnight. Iraqi police supposed to be guarding two polling places were nowhere in sight. And Iraqi contractors charged with placing bomb barriers around the polls for Sunday's vote were likewise missing — too scared to work. The danger in Iraq was on the minds of many voting in the United States.

"I just wish our families and relatives would have the same peace of mind that we have in the U.S.," Fouad Al-Najjar, a 53-year-old graduate school dean at a local university, said after voting in Southgate. "I hope somehow they will overcome these problems and will go and vote."

Election organizers didn't really know how many Iraqis in the United States were qualified to vote, but they put the figure at roughly 240,000. Using that number, the total who registered represent slightly more than 10 percent of those eligible — people who turned 18 by Dec. 31 and were born in Iraq, are present or former citizens of Iraq or have an Iraqi father.

"We recognize that the Iraqi voting population is spread out, and we never fooled ourselves into thinking we'd reach 100 percent of the population," said Jeremy Copeland of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, which organized the overseas voting.

Lack of documentation was another hurdle for some Iraqis, Copeland said, and others feared their relatives in Iraq could face reprisal, even though information collected from voters was kept confidential.

Edina Lekovic, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said most Iraqi-Americans didn't believe they would significantly alter the outcome, but felt the symbolic importance of casting a ballot.

"The sense is more often about having the right to vote and the access to vote and being thrilled by the opportunity," Lekovic said.

Voters are choosing parties rather than individuals, with the number of candidates seated from each party determined by the party's percentage of votes.