LONDON – In the nations bordering their homeland, in a furniture warehouse in Australia and in an events center in London, Iraqis on Friday began voting for an interim government that they hope will bring peace and order.
"Iraqis are finally expressing themselves. It is a victory for all the dead that Saddam Hussein killed," said Falastin Saheb, 25, an Iraqi who has been living in Syria for two years and is running a polling center there, in Rukn el-Din, a Kurdish (search) neighborhood.
Banners outside the center read: "Let us hear your voice."
Security was tight at polling stations in 14 countries that are open through Sunday, when people inside Iraq have their chance to vote.
Private security guards frisked people entering the polling center in Syria, X-ray machines and metal detectors were deployed in Australia, and in the Copenhagen suburb of Taastrup (search), heavily armed police checked voters as they wound their way through concrete blocs set up on the road leading to Denmark's only polling station.
According to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (search), there are 201,000 Iraqis living in Syria, but only 8 percent, or 16,581, have registered to vote. Many of the Iraqis fled around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to escape worsening security conditions.
As the low rate of registration signaled, hope was far from universal.
"I am not hopeful at all," said Fusun Atici, an ethnic Turk from Kirkuk who voted in Istanbul. "I think this election will only bring ethnic clashes."
Voters and election officials clapped their hands and sang to celebrate the start of voting in London, and one staff member banged on a drum improvised from a water container.
"It is the first time we have the right to vote and today I feel that I am born again," said Darbaz Rasool, 23, a Kurd who fled Iraq in 1994.
"Today I feel I am voting for Halabjah (search) and the people who lost their lives there," Rasool said, referring to the town where Saddam Hussein's forces used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in 1988.
In Iran, 75 percent of the 81,000 eligible voters registered. Many of Iraq's Arab neighbors fear the country's Shiite Muslim majority, long suppressed under Saddam, will vote in a government that will strengthen ties Iran's ruling Shiite clerics.
Many of the voters waiting outside a Tehran mosque used as a polling station said they came out of respect for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), Iraq's top Shiite cleric, who has called voting a "religious duty."
"It's a very happy day for me, I am happier than on my wedding day," said Saja Verdi, 26, an unemployed mother of two. "We are going to a start a new life in Iraq after long years of oppression."
In Sydney, Rebwar Aziz, a 38-year-old bus driver who has lived in Australia since 1992, said voters should not be deterred by insurgent violence.
"This is freedom for Iraqi people," he said. "The point is if you need freedom, you have to fight for it.
"I feel great. I can't express my happiness."
Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) was equivocal about the elections, telling Arab reporters accompanying him on a state visit to Moscow that "conditions were not ripe" and citing a boycott call by some Sunni Muslims.
"Postponing the elections is a problem, and holding them is a problem," Assad was quoted as saying in the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily Friday.
Iraqis voting in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, expressed similar hopes that the vote would help lead the country to peace.
"I am voting for security, stability and peace. I want to go back to my hometown, Basra, and die there," said Hameed Allwan, 68, who fled to Jordan 19 months ago.
Allwan voted at a Jordanian school, where Kurdish women garbed in their red, green and blue native dress waited alongside Arab men in traditional brown robes and white headdresses to cast their ballots.
One man, who identified himself only as Abu Salem, traveled with his family to Jordan from the town of Bashiqa in northern Iraq, because violence was so intense he was afraid to vote there.