Iraqi expats will play major role in election

Up to 1 million Iraqis outside the country are expected to cast ballots in the most extensive expatriate vote ever organized.

After many of them left their country to flee a repressive political system, Iraqis around the world will now have a say in the direction Iraq takes by voting in this month's national elections.

In what is being called the most extensive, complex - and rushed - expatriate vote ever organized, up to 1 million Iraqis are expected to cast a ballot in their country's first democratic elections at voting sites in Amman, Damascus, and Tehran - as well as in Sydney, Copenhagen, Detroit, and Nashville.

In all, 14 countries will have voting stations in an exercise that is creating excitement and mustering patriotic fervor among thousands of expatriate Iraqis - but which is also reviving old worries about the expatriate community's influence in postwar Iraq.

"It's been extremely challenging for us to put this together in 70 days, but it's also heartening that the biggest complaint we've had so far [from expatriate Iraqis] is that we don't have enough polling locations," says Sarah Tosh of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Amman, Jordan. Voter registration takes place this week in 36 cities around the world, with Iraqis wishing to vote required to appear in person. Expatriate voting will then begin Jan. 28 and run through Jan. 30, the day of national elections in Iraq. That mean "the first vote in Iraq's elections will actually be cast in Australia because of the time difference," says Ms. Tosh.

That distinction may thrill expatriate Iraqis in Australia, but points up the concern that some Iraqis, especially in the minority Sunni population, are expressing about the influence of a large outside-the-country vote. Election officials say they expect between 7 and 8 million of Iraq's estimated 14 million eligible voters to cast ballots - a result that would give extraordinary weight to the expatriates if 1 million turn out.

Allowing the large and widely dispersed expatriate community to vote was controversial as Iraqi officials wrangled over an electoral plan. Baghdad's influential former expatriates - including interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi - finally prevailed.

Still, election experts say providing for such a vote has become standard and should be seen more as a positive extension of empowering people than as a plot to sway results. "It's not at all unusual in post-conflict situations and in today's world to organize voting abroad, and it's my sense that you shouldn't disenfranchise people who were shoved out of the country by Saddam Hussein," says Daniel Serwer of the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

Mr. Serwer, who has been in Iraq organizing democratization programs, notes that the IOM has recent experience. It organized expatriate voting for last year's Afghanistan presidential elections. IOM official Tosh says the Afghanistan vote was put together in less than three months, but involved only two neighboring countries - Pakistan and Iran. The task was much simpler: It largely involved registering expatriates concentrated in refugee camps.

The Iraqi diaspora, on the other hand, is widely dispersed in several of the 14 countries where voting will be allowed. In the US, for instance, some Iraqis are complaining that the five cities designated for registering and voting - four of which lie East of the Mississippi - are too far-flung.

Protests are especially acute among Iraqi Christians, many of whom live in the San Diego area and in northern California. The nearest polling site is in Los Angeles - which may not seem too far to travel to further democracy, except that the trip must be made twice, once to register and then later this month to cast a ballot.

On the other hand, Kurdish Iraqis were able to secure a voting site in Nashville, Tenn., which is known as Little Kurdistan for its concentration of Iraqi Kurds. But Iraqi Christians peg their number in San Diego alone at 25,000, while they say about 5,000 Kurds live in Nashville.

Still, most Iraqi expats living in the US support the elections and are enthusiastic about participating. Divisions over the elections, however, are sharper in countries neighboring Iraq. In Syria, for example, many Iraqi Sunnis openly support the anti-American insurgency and oppose what they see as a rigged electoral process. "It's a phony election like those held in Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation," says Ahmad Dulaimi, a former economics professor at Baghdad University who lost his job in the de-Baathification program.

Iraqi Shiites, on the other hand, expect to fair well in the election due to their majority status and need little encouragement to vote. "We are optimistic," says Mohammed Said, the Damascus representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shiite political party. "Even the majority of Sunnis are with the elections. Those who object to the political process are being intimidated by the former regime elements and Al-Qaeda."

No such mixed response is apparent in the US Iraqi expat community. In Nashville, young restaurant and food mart owner Leali Alzuhairi says Iraqis from as far away as Florida have been calling his store for directions to the city's registration site. After fleeing Hussein's persecution, Mr. Alzuhairi says the prospect of voting makes "you feel like you're free."

More tempered is Kamal Hasan, who owns a convenience store next to a Kurdish mosque. "Everything has a start point," he says, and "this is a good start point for Iraq." He compares this vote to America's first election: "I know it's not going to make a big change in one day, but it will make a difference."

Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., contributed.

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