Iraqi Expatriates Gear Up to Vote

Iraqi expatriates in the United States and around the world began registering Monday to participate in their home country's first-ever democratic elections, scheduled for Jan. 30.

"This is a great moment for me and for the people of Iraq," Abdulrasul al-Hayder, 48, told The Associated Press as he registered in the Detroit suburb of Southgate. "This is the moment when Iraqis will put their stamp on the democracy. We've been waiting so many years."

Tanya Gilly, a member of the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, said she forsees a large number of Iraqi expats voting. "It's kind of a dream for them to vote in a free election in Iraq," she said.

"Symbolically, it's very important," added Tahir Hussain, director of the Nashville Kurdish Forum in the United States. "Adding to that, a success of a new Iraq and the success of an election is the success of America," he added, noting that many Iraqis living in the United States (search) are now either U.S. citizens or waiting to be citizens.

"We would like America to succeed in the War on Terror (search) and succeed in Iraq ... we are happy with the elections, we believe they're going to make a change … [and] will lead to a process and government that had not existed," Hussain said.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was authorized by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) to conduct a voting program allowing expatriate Iraqi communities in 14 countries, including the United States, to vote in the Jan. 30 Iraqi Transitional National Assembly election. Iraqis living outside of Iraq are not able to vote in local elections such as the Kurdish National Assembly election; voters must be residents of those areas in order to participate at that level.

Those leaders elected in the national election will write a draft of the permanent constitution for Iraq, elect a new president and two deputy presidents and, among other duties, legislate and exercise oversight over the work of the executive authority of the new government.

In Southgate, Ill., election workers created 30 to 40 "rooms" out of cloth inside an abandoned store. Every now and then, cheers would erupt from one of the rooms after a registration was completed.

"It's the first time for the Iraqis," Bushra Albrhi, who came to the United States in 1994, told the AP. "We'll be very happy if we get a president from the people."

In Nashville, about 25 Kurdish men waited outdoors in temperatures in the teens to register, the AP reported. The city is home to up to 8,000 Iraqis who are mostly Kurdish, a people who suffered under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Facing the Challenge

Iraqis born on or before Dec. 31, 1986, are eligible to vote if they can prove their eligibility by providing specific documents at the time of registration. But registration — which begins Monday and runs through Jan. 23 — and voting will only take place at centers in five U.S. cities: Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville. The locations were chosen by the U.S. arm of Iraq's Out-of-Country Voting program.

Despite the desire for many Iraqis to take place in their home-country elections, the logistics of the registration and voting process, however, may prove to be more a hindrance than a help.

"We recognize that is a huge challenge for a lot of people who live far away," said Jeremy Copeland, the chief of external relations for Iraq's OCV program. "I'm not sure how many Iraqis live in Topeka, but there are large communities in other cities that have to travel to, say, Los Angeles. People in California, for example, are 10 time zones away from Iraq. It is a long way."

But voting organizers said the idea is to make Iraq's first democratically-held election as open as possible. They want to allow as many Iraqis — many of whom were forced to flee the country under the despotic rule of Saddam — to participate, even though it may not be physically possible.

"The IECE realized that's exactly what would happen and they decided it is better to give some people a chance to have their voices heard than none at all outside of the country," Copeland said. "That's what we're aiming for. This program was only supposed to be in Washington, D.C., and 13 other [global] capitals. So, we've expanded it to make it possible for in these five cities will reach the majority of Iraqis."

But the viewpoint that making it possible for a portion of the Iraqi population living in the United States to vote rather than none at all isn't acceptable either, some argue.

"Personally, I don't believe in this," Gilly said. "One of the things they're trying to instill in Iraq right now is democracy, which means everyone has a chance to vote ... a lot of Iraqis here do feel they should be marginalized" because of where and how the polling places were chosen.

For example, there is only one polling place — Washington, D.C. — for the entire northeast corridor, yet there are two within a four-hour drive of each other in Detroit and Chicago. And although San Diego has a huge Iraqi population, Los Angeles was chosen instead.

But Roger Bryant, head of the U.S. portion of the OCV program, said that he based the decision on where to locate the polling stations on the demographics of Iraqis living in the United States.

"My belief is, that with the facilities I've got at my disposal, I've put them as fairly as I can throughout the United States," Bryant said.

"Some in the community are frustrated but I can almost guarantee you ... that most of the Iraqis living outside [of Iraq] do want to vote and they will vote," Gilly said.

'It Will Be a Historic Moment'

An estimated 360,000 Iraqi nationals live in the United States; about 240,000 of whom may vote in the elections; IOM estimates suggest that as many as 1 million Iraqi expatriates across the globe may be eligible to take part in the election. About 900 registration and polling stations are being established in approximately 150 locations across the 14 host countries.

There are 275 seats are up for grabs and about 6,000 candidates are vying for those positions. There are 111 political entities on that ballot, which, Copeland said, looks like "four pieces of pages stuck together with a lot of names a lot of symbols and a lot of numbers."

Whether Iraqis outside of their country of origin will even know who these candidates are is another hurdle to overcome.

"That is a question we've heard from a lot of Iraqi voters and it is hard to get information about who these political [entities] are that they will be voting for and that's a challenge that faces them," Copeland said. But "we can't take part in that process, and can't be campaigning for any of the parties."

Various independent groups throughout the country, like Hussain's and Gilly's, have been organizing various get-out-the-vote efforts in and around their communities to educate voters on where, when and how they can vote but having such a short window of time to do so since approval came through to allow Iraqis outside of Iraq to vote, that's also proving to be a challenge.

"It's a very short time that we knew about that and we wish there was more time for even people who are in charge of the election," Hussain said.

"I wish there was enough time to make more practical time for people to come and vote. It will not be as effective as you would like to … it's only was going to be fair if every Iraqi outside of Iraq would be able to cast their vote but unfortunately, that's not the case."

No one is insisting the elections are going to be perfect, but as White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday, "This is the first time Iraqis will be able to freely choose their leaders. It's for a transitional government, and it's one of three elections that will take place over the course of this year."

Nevertheless, Iraqis in the United States are looking forward to participating in the process.

"No election is perfect and we kind of have to accept that but just the fact that this will actually take place, it will be a historical moment," Gilly said.

Added Hussain: "It may not be an effective process but it is a foundation — it is the beginning to lay the foundation of democratic processes in Iraq."