Iraqi Expatriates Cast Ballots

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Iraqi expatriates voting Tuesday for a parliament in their homeland said they want stability and an end to the violence in Iraq. But the voters — in 15 countries around the world — were as divided on how to get there as as their communities are back home.

Strong voter turnout was seen in polling stations around the world, including in Syria, Jordan and Iran, where Associated Press reporters witnessed heavier turnout compared to Iraq's landmark January elections. Official turnout figures were not immediately available.

Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish concerns were reflected among many of the Iraqis living in neighboring countries, Europe and the United States. Voters came from all stages of their country's stormy past — those who fled Saddam Hussein's regime, and others who left amid the 2003 U.S.-led invasion or took refuge abroad from the relentless bloodshed that followed.

Iyad al-Iraqi, 22, a Sunni Arab voting in the Jordanian capital, Amman, said he hoped the elections would bring more "Muslim Arabs" to power.

"We hated living under Saddam, but at least it was safer then. Give us a thousand like Saddam, but not a single American to rule us," he said.

Sunnis at home and abroad largely shunned Jan. 30 elections for an interim parliament that wrote the nation's constitution — Iraq's first free vote in decades. The result was a legislature dominated by members of the Shiite Muslim majority and the strong Kurdish minority.

This time Sunnis in Iraq were pressing for a strong turnout to build their numbers in the 275-member legislature — and the response in predominantly Sunni Jordan and Syria suggested the communities there were answering the call.

Voting also appeared heavy among Iraqis in mainly Shiite Iran, a close ally of the Shiite parties that control the current government in Baghdad. Hundreds lined up at a polling station in southern Tehran to cast ballots.

In Qom, a center of Shiite religious studies, Iraqis — most of them seminarians — also converged at polling stations, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said.

A group of 50 Kurdish men traveled by bus from the English town of Ipswich to London, waving Kurdish flags and singing nationalist songs at a polling center. "We want to see Kurdistan become independent," said 28-year-old factory worker Dilzar Muhamad. "We don't worry about what will happen to the Arabic people in the rest of Iraq, or about Turkey or Iran for that matter."

Some 1.5 million Iraqis living abroad are eligible to vote at polling centers in 15 countries, including the United States and Canada. Tuesday was the first of three days of expatriate voting, while Iraqis at home will go to the polls on Thursday.

In Syria, home to 400,000 Iraqis, thousands flocked to 11 polling stations across the country, a far stronger turnout than during January's polls. Hayel Youhana, the supervisor of one polling center in Damascus, declined to give figures but said the turnout "surpassed our expectations."

Would-be voters must prove they hold Iraqi citizenship, were born in Iraq, or have one parent with Iraqi citizenship.

In Illinois, Michigan and Tennessee, election coordinators said they expected turnout to surpass January's participation.

Talal Shawkat, 55, a Baghdad native who has lived in Damascus for the past 18 months, said: "I want to vote because I see the process as free and honest."

In Zarqa, Jordan, the hometown of Iraq's most feared terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraqis turned up at polling stations despite a statement issued hours earlier on the Internet by al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq and four other militant groups branding the polls a "satanic project."

"I'm voting to challenge these militants, to have a strong parliament and government that would restrain these outlaws," Hamed Al-Nasseri, 56, shouted outside a polling station in Zarqa, an industrial city 20 miles northeast of Amman.

Baha'a Eldin, 53, an Iraqi social worker whose son was kidnapped briefly by criminals after the U.S.-led invasion, said in Amman that he hoped the polls would allow for safer conditions "so we can return to our country and live in peace."

Haidar Al Latif drove 10 hours from South Dakota to a polling place in suburban Chicago.

"This is the first time I had the opportunity to vote," said Al Latif, 34, who works as a mason in Sioux Falls. He said a snowstorm prevented him from making the trip in January.

In Denmark, Soran Abul-Aziz spent the night outside a polling station in a sleeping bag. He said he wanted to be the first one to cast his ballot.

"I am very happy. I hope Iraq soon will become a democratic country like Denmark," he said, sporting a red Santa hat.

The countries hosting the vote were chosen because they had the largest concentrations of Iraqis: Australia, the United States, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Austria, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.