DAMASCUS, Syria – Iraqi expatriates in Syria will have the opportunity to vote in this month's Iraqi elections under an agreement signed Sunday between the Syrian government and the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (search).
More than 250,000 Iraqis are believed to be living in Syria. Many of them fled here to escape worsening security conditions since the onset of the U.S.-led war that ousted former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein last year.
The agreement says Iraqis wishing to cast their votes in Syria must prove their eligibility and register at a Damascus election center from Jan. 17 to 23. Polling will take place over three days, from Jan. 28 to 30.
Iraqis at home will vote Jan. 30 for a National Assembly that will draft the country's new constitution.
"The (Out-of-Country Vote) program gives Iraqis living in Syria a unique chance to participate in their homeland's first democratic election in living memory," Luis Martinez-Betanzos, who heads the vote program in Syria, said in a statement.
He said he was pleased with the level of cooperation from the Syrian government.
Martinez-Betanzos and Faysal al-Hamoui of the Syrian Foreign Ministry signed the deal, according to the statement from the Independent Electoral Commission (search) in Iraq.
Syria has had strong opinions about its eastern neighbor. It vehemently opposed the war and is accused by U.S. and Iraqi officials of "meddling" in Iraqi affairs and aiding the Iraqi insurgency —charges denied by Syrian officials.
Syria also initially criticized Iraq's interim government for being U.S.-installed, but later softened its approach and welcomed members of the government in Damascus.
Following a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad (search) in Damascus on Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (search) told reporters he had stressed the "absolute importance of the Iraqi elections" and the full participation of all Iraqis.
"I believe I found here in Syria the same view," he said.
Following his visit, a Foreign Ministry statement said the Syrian and U.S. sides "agreed on the need for Iraqi elections to succeed in a way that represents the entire Iraqi people."
The Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq hired the International Organization for Migration, which works with United Nations agencies, to help organize voting procedures outside Iraq.
The organization estimates that as many as 1 million Iraqi expatriates will be eligible to vote across the 14 countries where it hopes to conduct the Out-of-Country Vote.