Pride, joy fill Iraqis at polls

Published: Saturday, January 29, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 11:58 p.m.
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Hadi Khadher, an Iraqi immigrant, smiles after getting his finger dyed before voting Friday in Iraq's first independent election in nearly 50 years at the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, Calif.

J.D. POOLEY/The New York Times
SOUTHGATE, Mich. - Ali Mohammed, who spent eight years in Abu Ghraib prison in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, called the owner of the grocery store where he is a stock boy before sunup Friday to say he was putting on his best suit, the fine charcoal pinstripe he normally saves for weddings.
Glowing like proud papas, Mohammed and his boss, Hussain Al-Jebori, cast the first ballots of their lives and then hung around the polling place here for three hours, clapping for friends and strangers, and searching for familiar names, including a former cellmate, on the daunting list of 7,700 candidates for the Iraqi legislature listed on a poster. Mohammed, 39, said he decided on Friday to start a family, ''because now my children's future is secure.'' Al-Jebori, 35, planned to return here today and Sunday with his five children, ages 4 to 17, ''to read the happiness in Iraqi people's eyes.''
''I wanted to keep the paper in my hand for long time,'' Al-Jebori said of the historic ballot. ''First thing I imagined how much the paper cost us as a country and a people. It cost us a million people's death. Now we get the victory, just now when we elect our representatives. I want to touch the victory, I didn't want to leave it.''
The two men were among thousands of Iraqi expatriates across the United States and 13 other countries who opened three days of voting on Friday to choose a 275-member national assembly in Iraq's first democratic election in half a century. Even as they exulted in the opportunity, many voters expressed deep fears about Sunday's vote in their homeland, with some begging loved ones to abstain rather than risk the bombs that insurgents have promised at the polls.
While registration in the United States was sparse, with only about 1 in 10 signing up among the estimated 240,000 who were eligible, Friday brought a steady stream of voters to a former home-improvement store here and to similar sites in Nashville, Tenn., and the suburbs of Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles. Scores of security guards, some with bomb-sniffing dogs, and metal detectors protected the polls, where no problems were reported.
The voters came in makeshift shuttles, like the ones Al-Jebori organized from his store 10 miles away in Dearborn, Mich., and in chartered buses from far-flung states, pushing strollers and pushing wheelchairs. They wore white knitted skullcaps, silken headscarves and beat-up baseball caps. Kurds, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Shiites and Sunnis, they celebrated like it was Christmas, the hajj, a wedding and the birth of a child, all braided into one glorious holiday.
In Skokie, Ill., election monitors eagerly awaited the arrival of a woman from Chicago whose birth in 1908 made her the oldest of their registrants (she did not appear). In Irvine, Calif., Ali Al-Jabiri, a barber, arrived at a converted nightclub on a closed Marine base with his wife, 3-year-old son, brother and sister-in-law after 20 hours in a minivan from their home in Seattle. ''I am waiting for my friends to dance,'' he shouted over the beat, explaining that he would stay all weekend to greet fellow voters from Boston, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. ''We're going to go in as a group,'' he said, ''We make a party inside too.''
Amid the joy, some were somber about the election's potential for real change, given the Sunni boycott and continuing violence. Waseem Maruwge, 24, who lives in Sweden but registered and voted here while visiting relatives, said he urged his two aunts in Baghdad to stay home Sunday, telling them, ''I'll vote instead of you.''
''I take it seriously, but I don't think it's going to make a big difference,'' he said of the election. ''It's going to stay the way it is. Whoever is going to be elected, what change can they make in the short term?''
Others were defiant.
''They decided to vote even if they die,'' Diaa Al-Tamimi, 35, said of his relatives remaining in Iraq. ''There's danger, but if not to vote, they're going to die anyway. Election, that's the best weapon for us. Terrorists, they use car bombs. We use the election.''
Haider Aljayashi, 37, who drove to the Skokie poll from his home in St. Paul, Minn., said he would nervously ''count hours and minutes'' until the election's end, calling Sunday to see if his mother, two brothers and sister still in Iraq survived the election. ''It's not safe, but they will do it,'' he said. ''We spent our life as a number on paper. Now we count as a people, a citizenship. This is worth a lot. This is worth even dying for.''
The International Organization for Migration, which ran the worldwide balloting, said it would not provide a turnout tally until this morning. But here in Southgate, a spokeswoman said 2,000 people had signed in by midday. Arriving here, voters had to show registration cards and photo identification before emptying pockets to pass through metal detectors into the 100,000 square-foot warehouse where blue curtains marked off 14 voting stations.
Inside the curtains, voters once again showed their registrations, with identification proving they were at least 18 and that they or their father had been born in Iraq. Then they signed next to their name on the registration rolls, got their registration cards stamped, dunked their right index fingers into jars of indelible ink, and received a 2-foot by 3-foot ballot, folded and stamped four times.
Behind a cardboard partition, the expatriates made a check mark - an ''x'' was invalid - with a black Sharpie marker, then dropped the folded ballots into clear plastic tubs whose tops were secured with green plastic ties. Applause erupted every few minutes from the aisles formerly filled with lumber and light fixtures, with every paper hitting plastic.
''Today, God is happy,'' announced Husham Al-Husainy, the imam at the Karbalah Islamic Center, a large mosque in Dearborn, who strode in at lunchtime with Ibrahim Ibrahim, the Chaldean bishop based in Southfield, Mich. ''Jesus is happy, and Moses is happy, and Muhammad is happy.''
Al-Husainy wore a white turban and brown robe, his friend Ibrahim a black priest's collar and bare head. ''We registered together, we vote together,'' the bishop said. ''Doesn't matter if we vote for same people, we vote for Iraq.''
The imam added, ''And we'll go back together - God willing.''
Many here said they had chosen slate No. 169, the United Iraqi coalition headed by Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile.
In California and Illinois, several Assyrians said they marked No. 139 or No. 204, Assyrian slates, in a simple act of ethnic identity.
''Doesn't matter which one it is, it's Assyrian,'' explained Youel Mirza of Chicago, 57, a retired machinery operator born in Al Anbar, near the Syrian border. There were no lapel stickers declaring ''I voted today,'' but voters proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers as a sure, if crude, sign of progress.
''I'm very happy to show everybody my finger now,'' said Al-Jebori, the grocery store owner, whose smile simply would not fade. ''I wish it could stay there for years and years.''

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