- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

Christian Iraqis in the United States claim they are being effectively shut out of the planned Jan. 30 election for a new government in Baghdad at a time when their community faces murderous violence and discrimination back home.

Jacklin Bejan, a spokeswoman for the Chaldean-Assyrian-American Advocacy Council, said the decision by election organizers to set up just one polling station west of the Mississippi — in Los Angeles — means that tens of thousands of eligible voters will not be able to register or vote.

In San Diego alone, there are an estimated 25,000 expatriate Iraqis of Assyrian or Chaldean ancestry who could vote in the election. Iraq’s Chaldean-Assyrian community is one of the largest remaining Christian populations in the Middle East, and has been the target of intimidation, assassinations and bombings by Islamist terrorists in recent months.

For some Iraqi communities in Northern California, “you are talking about an 800-mile round trip just to register next week, and another 800-mile round trip to vote on January 30,” Mrs. Bejan said.

“We offered to do everything they wanted to set up more polling places — locations, security, staffing — and we were just told no,” she said.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), working with Iraqi election officials, selected five cities where the estimated 240,000 eligible Iraqis can vote: Washington, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

About 1 million Iraqis in 14 countries will be eligible to cast ballots in the Jan. 30 election, considered a critical step in the country’s rocky path to self-rule.

Fifteen U.S.-based Chaldean and Assyrian groups signed a petition this week protesting the voting procedures in the United States. They noted that Nashville, with a community of only about 4,000 Iraqis of Kurdish origin, has a polling site, while San Diego County, whose Iraqi expatriate community is the third-largest in the country, does not.

Large Iraqi Christian communities in central and Northern California, as well as Arizona and Nevada, are also effectively shut out, the petition said.

“The seemingly arbitrary allocation of polling stations is seen as an outright act of discrimination against non-Kurdish Iraqis, especially the Chaldo-Assyrians who comprise 85 percent to 90 percent of all Iraqi-Americans,” the petition said.

The Sunni Muslim Kurds were a staunch U.S. ally in the drive to oust Saddam Hussein. But they have also clashed in northern Iraq with Chaldeans, Assyrians and other smaller minorities over political control and economic resources.

The issue has attracted the attention of members of Congress.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, wrote to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell earlier this week questioning the distribution of polling places and noting the campaign of terror targeting Christians inside Iraq.

“It is in our nation’s own political interest to help ensure that this group, which is pro-democratic and pro-Western, can participate in the democratic process and have its rights protected in the new government,” he wrote.

And 12 California lawmakers wrote this week directly to election organizers, urging the opening of two more polling sites in San Diego and Modesto, Calif.

Sarah Tosh, spokeswoman for the IOM’s Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, said in an e-mail that the U.S. sites were picked based on census data and in close consultation with U.S. Iraqi groups and the Iraqi Embassy.

“They agreed that if we could only have registration and polling in five cities, then these were the best ones,” she said.

She said officials recognize that the one California registration and voting site “will be inconvenient for Iraqi voters in San Diego,” but, she added, “Iraqis living in other parts of the United States also face long commutes to vote.”

With voter registration set to begin Monday, “it would be impossible for us to consider opening new sites at this stage in the process.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday he had not seen Mr. Wolf’s letter to Mr. Powell and would not comment on it.

Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary for human rights, democracy and labor, said in a Wednesday briefing that the U.S. government was merely “facilitating” the expatriate vote, which was organized and financed by the Iraqis.

“We are not making the rules. We’re not the ones selecting the sites,” Mr. Kozak said.

Nina Shea, director of the Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, said the passive stance of the U.S. government reflected “the proverbial tin ear our bureaucracy has for the importance of religion in the Muslim world and in the Middle East.”

“We formed an alliance with the Kurds for understandable reasons, but that does not mean we should just view the country’s persecuted Christian minority as an inconvenience,” she said.

Mrs. Bejan said the voting question wasn’t an academic one. Under Iraq’s proposed voting formula, the expatriate U.S. vote could ensure as many as five seats for Assyrian-Chaldean candidates in the new National Assembly.

“Those are seats we badly need just to protect our property and our lives,” she said.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this article

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