SYDNEY, Australia – An Australian polling station for Iraqi exiles voting in their homeland's historic election was closed for an hour on Saturday after a riot broke out and a suspicious bag prompted a bomb scare, organizers said.
Bernie Hogan, the head of Australia's (search) overseas voting program, said the riot erupted when a group of around 20 protesters started yelling insults at voters leaving the polling center in a Sydney neighborhood dominated by Iraqi Shiites (search).
Hogan said the protesters were holding up the same black flag with white lettering that has appeared as a backdrop in videos released by Iraqi insurgents featuring foreign hostages begging for their lives.
Thair Wali, an Iraqi adviser for the International Organization for Migration (search), said the protesters' flag and Arabic slogans identified them as Wahabis, followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia.
Wahabis (search) are suspected of having influence over militants waging a 17-month insurgency in Iraq.
Wali said the fight broke out after the protesters took pictures of voters.
"This is scary for the people, taking photos of the voting," he said.
Many of Australia's estimated 80,000 Iraqis declined to register for the election, fearing their votes would make relatives in Iraq terrorist targets.
Around 50 people wrestled in the street, threw punches and hit one another over the head with their shoes — an insult in Iraqi culture, Hogan said.
The polling center was closed and police cordoned off the area while the contents of an unattended backpack were examined, a spokesman for the New South Wales state police said on a condition of anonymity. The bag contained water and biscuits.
Australia is one of 14 countries where Iraqi exiles can vote by absentee ballot.