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Iraqi Expats Celebrate Vote in U.S.

Abdul al-Najr woke up early Saturday with his wife, piled into a car with three friends and drove 250 miles from St. Louis to the polling place here, where jubilant Iraqis danced and held hands in the steady, cold rain.

"I'm so happy because I'm human," al-Najr, 38, said after casting a ballot for the first time in his life. "I get to say I'm human now."

On the second day of voting for Iraqi expatriates (search), people drove hundreds of miles to reach the five U.S. cities with polling places: Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. More than 5,000 Iraqis voted on Friday, and organizers expected larger crowds over the weekend.

In Nashville, which has the largest Kurdish community in the nation, about 20 Kurds celebrated by dancing and waving flags in the rain. The men and women broke into a line dance called the badine with traditional music blaring from a car's speakers.

Children waved flags to signify Kurdistan (search), while several teenage boys wore Iraqi soccer jerseys and had their faces painted like the national flag.

"It is celebration because for the first time they taste the freedom of this country," said George Khamou, of Little Rock, Ark., who watched the dancers. "This is really a big celebration for all of us here — the Kurdish, the Arabs, the Christians, everybody.

"All we say now is all of us are Iraqis, because we are all the same."

Voters had their right index finger dipped in ink as a safeguard against voting fraud, then dropped paper ballots into boxes.

"They're thrilled to have the ink on their finger as a badge that they voted," said Kathleen Houlihan, the Chicago spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (search), which is helping coordinate the vote. "It's history in the making."

Nearly 26,000 people have registered to vote in the United States. Tens of thousands more are expected to vote in 13 other countries during balloting that runs through Sunday, the same day as elections in Iraq.

One busload of about 50 Iraqis traveled from Lincoln, Neb., to cast their ballots Saturday in Rosemont, Ill., about 20 miles northwest of Chicago, while other voters arrived from Iowa, Missouri and Indiana.

Turnout was steady in sunny Irvine, Calif., where voters clapped and cheered as fellow expatriates completed their paper ballots.

"I never thought I could put the words together, Iraq and vote," said Mona Oshana, 36, who has lived in Phoenix since she was a child. "We have left (Iraq), but we have not forgotten them."

Bako Darwesh, 5, and his little brother Dana, 2, splashed around in mud puddles while first their mother, Samiir, and then their father, Sherko, voted in Nashville.

"Everything is excellent (here)," said Sherko Darwesh of Memphis. "But the situation is difficult there (in Iraq). We hope that they will be safe, we hope."

Iraq's president warned that fears about security there would prompt many to stay home rather than vote in the nation's first election in half a century. Mortar rounds landed at least one polling site in the region south of Baghdad overnight.

In Australia, fistfights broke out at a polling station Saturday when a group of Islamic extremists chanted slogans against those casting ballots.

But in the United States, Iraqis were thrilled to be voting for the 275-member assembly that will draft Iraq's new constitution.

Arkan al-Hasnawi, 33, of LaCrosse, Wis., has spent the last two weeks in Nashville staying with his family and brother Thaban, 38.

"It's a long time we've been waiting for vote," Arkan al-Hasnawi said. "Everybody is excited to vote, everybody should get that chance — to vote for a new Iraq."

Both brothers were hopeful Iraq could be unified like it was before Saddam Hussein's regime.

"If we get right person, then he can run the country right and everybody will be happy," Thaban al-Hasnawi said.