SOUTHGATE, Mich. – Iraqi-Americans (search) filled buses, churches and mosques Sunday as they cast absentee ballots in Iraq’s first legitimate election in more than 50 years.
Expatriates had three days to vote, starting Friday and ending at 5 p.m. local time Sunday at each polling station, several hours after the polls closed in Iraq.
"This day I was born again … I call this day 'born-again day,'" a 48-year-old voter told FOX News after casting his ballot at a polling station in Southgate, Mich. (search) — one of five cities where Iraqis can vote in the United States. It was the first time he had ever had the chance to vote in an Iraqi election.
The mood was joyful at the suburban Detroit polling site Sunday as Iraqi voters filled out their ballots and expressed relief that their family members had been able to vote in their native country. There are about 150,000 Iraqis in the United States, with as many as 80,000 in Michigan alone.
Amid dancing and smiles, one election worker banged a tambourine and cheered as voters dropped their paper ballots in boxes.
"I feel like I'm going to cry. This is my first time ever voting," said Zeinab Alkhafaji, 20, of Dearborn.
She cast her vote among friends and family, all of whom left Iraq in 1994. They said they were especially encouraged after talking to family back in Iraq on Sunday morning and learning that relatives there had voted safely.
Many Iraqis in the United States had to drive hundreds of miles to reach polling sites outside five major U.S. cities: Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. Nearly 26,000 Iraqi expatriates in the United States registered to vote during the Jan. 17-25 sign-up period. To be eligible, voters had to have turned 18 by Dec. 31 and be born in Iraq, be present or former citizens of Iraq or have an Iraqi father.
Registrations in the Detroit area totaled 9,714, while smaller numbers of people registered in the other four cities. Those who registered had to return to the same site between Friday and Sunday in order to cast their vote. The locations were chosen by the U.S. arm of Iraq's Out-of-Country-Voting program.
Most of those who did sign up were thrilled at the chance to participate. The latest available figures showed that about two-thirds of those who did sign up had cast ballots in the first two days.
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 were established in approximately 150 locations across the 14 host countries.
There are 275 seats are up for grabs in the Iraqi assembly that will draft Iraq's new constitution, and about 6,000 candidates are vying for those positions.
"We recognize that the Iraqi voting population is spread out, and we never fooled ourselves into thinking we'd reach 100 percent of the population," said Jeremy Copeland of the International Organization for Migration, which organized the vote in the United States and 13 other countries.
For other Iraqis, it wasn't time or place that kept them from registering, Copeland said. It was not having documentation, such as an Iraqi passport or a driver's license with a photo, to prove their eligibility or fearing their relatives in Iraq could face reprisal, even though all of the information collected was kept confidential.
Still, Copeland said officials were heartened by stories of intrepid Iraqis, such as a busload of more than 100 who drove from Washington state to Los Angeles last weekend to register.
Ali Almoumineen, a lawyer who left Iraq in 1992 and settled in Nashville, Tenn., is one of those who registered to vote. He remembers Iraq's elections before Saddam Hussein fell.
"The ballot before had Saddam Hussein — yes or no — and if you put no, the bodyguard took you to the jail," said Almoumineen, who now teaches Arabic to U.S. troops.
Edina Lekovic, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said most Iraqi-Americans didn't believe they would significantly alter the outcome, but felt the symbolic importance of casting a ballot.
"The sense is more often about having the right to vote and the access to vote and being thrilled by the opportunity," Lekovic said.
FOX News' Eric Shawn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.