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Iraqi Expats Begin Casting Ballots

Iraqi expatriates began casting ballots in Sydney (search) on Friday, several jostling to be among the first to vote in Iraq's first independent elections in more than 50 years.

Amid tight security at a converted furniture warehouse, young children mingled with elderly Kurdish (search) women in head-to-toe black robes.

"This is a long dream that now comes true," said 56-year-old Karim Jari before casting his vote. "We hope this is a new beginning."

Australia is one of 14 nations where Iraqis living outside their country can vote — and the first country in the world to begin collecting ballots because of its time zone. In Iraq, the vote is Sunday; elsewhere, it runs Friday through Sunday.

About two dozen people jostled to be among the first to vote at 7 a.m. Friday in Australia (search) (3 p.m. EST Thursday).

Rebwar Aziz, who was lived in Australia since 1992, got the honor.

"This is freedom for Iraqi people," the 38-year-old bus driver said.

He rejected the wave of attacks by insurgents in Iraq aimed at disrupting the vote there.

"The point is if you need freedom, you have to fight for it," he said. "I feel great. I can't express my happiness."

Many historians consider the last free elections in Iraq to have taken place in 1954, when opposition won seats in an election held under British colonial influence. Iraq was a constitutional monarchy at the time.

As voting got under way in Sydney, a group of about a dozen protesters of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq began shouting in Arabic and waving banners with Arabic and English slogans including: "No to American terrorism. No to Islamic terrorism."

But they quickly were drowned out by a larger contingent who cheered, chanted, clapped and danced outside the polling station.

Nearly 12,000 Iraqi exiles registered to vote in Australia, around 15 percent of the estimated 80,000 eligible Iraqi nationals.

Organizers originally hoped that as many as 50,000 Iraqis would join the electoral rolls in Australia, but downgraded their expectations after a poor showing at polling stations last week, saying fear and apathy were keeping many Iraqis away from the polls.

That trend was reflected in the other countries and less than a quarter of the 1.2 million eligible expatriate Iraqis had registered by Tuesday's deadline.

Organizers of the overseas vote twice extended the timeframe for voter registration to help boost turnout.

The low numbers have been attributed to a shortage of registration and polling places, a disorganized election effort, fears of violence or reprisals and conflicts with the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which coincides with the yearly hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Those of the 280,303 registered expatriates around the world who cast a vote will choose a 275-member national assembly, which will draft a constitution and elect a president over the next year.

Votes may also be cast in the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates.

In Australia, officials say ballots will be counted at polling stations on Feb. 1, and results sent by encrypted e-mail to overseas voting headquarters in Jordan. The tally from all overseas ballots will be announced later in Baghdad.

To register, expatriate Iraqis had to document their identity, Iraqi nationality and birth on or before Dec. 31, 1986. To vote, they must return to the same location where they registered.