SOUTHGATE, Mich. – Cheers, applause, joyful tears and an outpouring of support welcomed many Iraqi expatriates Friday as they began casting their ballots for their home country's first independent elections in more than 50 years.
"This day I was born again … I call this day 'born-again day,'" one voter told FOX News after casting his ballot at a polling station in Southgate, Mich. — one of five U.S. cities where Iraqis can vote in the United States.
"It's the greatest feeling in my life because we belief voting at this time, it's really going to happen … to have democracy and have fair and justice in Iraq," said another voter.
"This is first time for me to vote for Iraq and my country … I'm very happy," one female voter told FOX News.
Iraqi expatriates began casting votes at 7 a.m. inside an abandoned store in this Detroit suburb. Periodically, cheers erupted from one of the 15 polling stations.
An oversized, homemade Iraqi flag hung from the ceiling of the voting site in Southgate. One poll worker was weeping. Security was tight — guards checked IDs as people pulled into the parking lot and metal detectors stood at the doors.
"We feel happy now. This is like America, this voting," said Zoha Yess, 64, who moved to Inkster nine years ago. "We want fair, good government."
Overseas voting continues through Sunday, which is election day in Iraq itself.
Nearly 26,000 Iraqi expatriates (search) in the United States registered to vote during the Jan. 17-25 sign-up period. Registrations in the Detroit area totaled 9,714, while smaller numbers of people registered in Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington. They must 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.
An estimated 360,000 Iraqi nationals live in the United States — about 240,000 of whom are eligible to vote in the elections if they registered. 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.
Based on the estimated 240,000 Iraqis living in the United States, the total who registered represent slightly more than 10 percent of those eligible — people who turned 18 by Dec. 31 and were born in Iraq, are present or former citizens of Iraq or have an Iraqi father.
"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 (search), 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 (search) 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.