- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

Iraqi expatriates voting in New Carrollton yesterday shook their heads in disbelief over Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s call for the immediate withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops from their homeland.

“I think that is the wrong decision for now — maybe in the future, if the elections turn out well,” said Goran Rahim, 22, a Kurd who lives in Reston. “We need America’s support right now.”

From New Carrollton, Md., to Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia, to London, thousands of Iraqi expatriates around the world began casting ballots yesterday in their country’s first free elections in more than 50 years.

“We will always appreciate what the U.S. and President Bush did for us,” said Muhamad Ilhussenani, 33, a Shi’ite Muslim who left Iraq in 1991 and now owns a restaurant in the District.

He was among those who disagreed with the suggestion Thursday by Mr. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, that the U.S. troops should begin to pull out.

“If the United States Army [goes], I don’t think the Iraqis can fight these [terrorist] groups,” Mr. Ilhussenani said. “If they leave Iraq now, I don’t think that is a good idea.”

Voters came to New Carrollton from as far away as New Hampshire and Florida to vote to form a 275-member assembly that will draft Iraq’s new constitution.

Though just 500 of the 2,000 Iraqi nationals registered to vote at New Carrollton had turned out by noon yesterday, polling officials predicted heavier turnout today and tomorrow, which is election day in Iraq.

Results from the three days of international expatriate voting will be sent to Baghdad by Feb. 5.

Across the United States, about 26,000 of 240,000 eligible Iraqi voters have registered, according to the International Organization of Migration, which is administering the absentee voting in the United States and 13 other countries.

The other U.S. polling places are in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn.

The 13 other countries hosting the vote are Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.

Germany, Iran, the United Kingdom and Sweden — all smaller than the United States — registered more Iraqis voters.

The organization blamed the low registration numbers in the United States on rumors that voters would have to pay a $30 poll tax and could lose their U.S. citizenship or benefits. They also cited the long distances many would have had to travel to reach polling places.

“We recognize that the Iraqi voting population is spread out,” organization spokesman Jeremy Copeland said. “We never fooled ourselves into thinking we’d reach 100 percent of the population.”

Insurgents have threatened to disrupt the vote, and security was tight at polling stations in every county, especially in the Middle East. No terrorist attacks were reported yesterday.

The voting in New Carrollton took place amid tight security, with uniformed and plain-clothes officers from Prince George’s County Police Department and Maryland State Police stationed around the hotel.

Police set up a check point on the street adjacent to the hotel and vehicles entering the parking lot were screened by explosives-sniffing police dogs. Voters were subject to a pat down and sweep with a metal-detection wand before entering the polling place inside an unheated parking garage behind the hotel.

However, neither the security nor the 20-degree cold dashed voters’ spirits.

“People are very, very excited,” said Ayob Hajibadri, a Burke resident working as a poll official. “You can tell by their face when they come in. Some are making a party out of it.”

The party was going strong in a parking lot across the street from the hotel where a couple of men, including one waving an Iraqi flag, danced in circles to Middle Eastern music blaring from large speakers on top of a car.

Similar celebrations erupted at the other U.S. polling places.

“This is my finger I push in Saddam’s eye,” said Khadim Al-Khafaji, pointing to his finger stained with indelible blue ink, proof that he voted. “The Saddam regime is gone. Thank you, United States,” Mr. Al-Khafaji fled Baghdad six years ago and voted in Detroit yesterday.

Ali Almoumineen cast his ballot in Nashville, Tenn., but recalled the voting he witnessed during Saddam’s reign.

“The ballot before had Saddam Hussein — yes or no — and if you put no, the bodyguard took you to the jail,” said Mr. Almoumineen, a lawyer who left Iraq in 1992 and now teaches Arabic to U.S. troops.

In contrast to the trickle of voters turning out in the United States, lines of almost 200 voters in Iran formed at a polling station in a mosque in Tehran.

Many in line said they came out of respect for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, who is not a candidate but who has called voting a “religious duty.”

“I voted as my religious task,” said Abbas Mustafa, 37, a teacher. “It’s time to establish a Shi’ite government.”

The elections are viewed as a turning point since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq almost two years ago that removed Saddam from power.

For many expatriate Iraqi Shi’ites, it is a chance to reclaim political power they had been denied for a half-century. Shi’ites, who represent about 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million people, endured oppression under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government.

Despite fighting a bloody, eight-year war that ended in 1988, Iran and Iraq have deep-rooted religious ties, and Iran expects the landmark vote to put a friendly, Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq. The prospect has raised fears in the West and in the Arab world that Iraq will ally itself with Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy.

Still, the first day of voting remained a cause for celebration that spanned the globe.

A chorus of cheers went up as Nazem Kazem Saoodi, 60, a physician, cast the first vote in Dubai. “Yes, we did it,” he shouted as he cast his ballot, then broke into tears and hugged his wife. “I’m doing this for my children. … It’s the first step in a thousand-mile journey.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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