Iraqi expatriates begin voting in U.S.; nearly 26,000 registered at five sites

Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 3:00 p.m.

SOUTHGATE, Mich. (AP) - Joyful tears and frequent applause marked the start of U.S. voting Friday in Iraq's first independent elections in more than 50 years.

Iraqi expatriates began casting votes at 7 a.m. inside an abandoned store in this Detroit suburb. Periodically, cheers would erupt from one of the 15 polling stations.

"We feel happy now. This is like America, this voting," said Zoha Yess, 64, who moved to Inkster nine years ago. "We want fair, good government."

Overseas voting continues through Sunday, which is election day in Iraq itself.

Nearly 26,000 Iraqi expatriates in the United States registered to vote during the Jan. 17-25 sign-up period. Registrations in the Detroit area totaled 9,714, while smaller numbers of people registered in Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington. They must return to the same site between Friday and Sunday in order to cast their vote.

An oversized, homemade Iraqi flag hung from the ceiling of the voting site in Southgate. One poll worker could be seen weeping. Security was tight, when guards checking IDs as people pulled into the parking lot and metal detectors at the doors.

Voters are choosing the 275-member assembly that will draft Iraq's new constitution.

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 vote in the United States and 13 other countries.

For other Iraqis, it wasn't time or place that kept them from registering, Copeland said. It was not having documentation, such as an Iraqi passport or a driver's license with a photo, to prove their eligibility or fearing their relatives in Iraq could face reprisal, even though all of the information collected was kept confidential.

Still, Copeland said officials were heartened by stories of intrepid Iraqis, such as a busload of more than 100 who drove from Washington state to Los Angeles last weekend to register.

Ali Almoumineen, a lawyer who left Iraq in 1992 and settled in Nashville, Tenn., is one of those who registered to vote. He remembers Iraq's elections before Saddam Hussein fell.

"The ballot before had Saddam Hussein _ yes or no _ and if you put no, the bodyguard took you to the jail," said Almoumineen, who now teaches Arabic to U.S. troops.

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.


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