- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

Iraqi native Hafez Ali Hassan Al-Saleh, raising his right hand with an ink-stained finger, stood in front of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives yesterday and swore allegiance to a country that he once considered his enemy.

“It’s a gift to be an American citizen,” he said. “I feel proud to stand in there.”

Mr. Al-Saleh — a former member of the Iraqi army who came to the U.S. eight years ago — was one of 32 immigrants from 28 countries who became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Archives building in the District.

U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who filled in for Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan, swore in the new citizens in the Archives’ Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

The immigrants listened to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said the oath of allegiance to the United States and waved miniature American flags after the naturalization process was complete.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales addressed the citizens.

“You may have come here by plane, by boat or even by foot,” Mr. Gonzales told the immigrants, who came from such countries as Brazil, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Mexico. “No matter what history brought you to this point of achievement, your courage will mean a better life for you and your families.”

More than 537,000 people became new U.S. citizens in fiscal 2004, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The ceremony took place on the 214th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights, but held an even greater significance for Mr. Al-Saleh, who on Wednesday voted in his homeland’s historic parliamentary elections.

“I felt I did something for my country,” said Mr. Al-Saleh, who lives in the District. “I tried to help.”

The 38-year-old was one of thousands of Iraqi expatriates who this week cast absentee ballots at seven U.S. polling places, including a Best Western hotel in McLean, to help elect a 275-member national assembly.

The other polling sites were in Nashville, Tenn., and in areas outside Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago and Detroit.

Yesterday was the last day of absentee voting in the U.S., where thousands packed the polling places to cast their votes.

Almost all polling officials yesterday said they expected to surpass the number of votes cast in January when elections for an interim parliament were held.

Safa Alkateb, manager of the local election, would not say yesterday how many Iraqis voted in McLean, but he did say that “it was slightly more” than the estimated 2,000 voters who cast ballots at a polling place in Prince George’s County last January.

Voting in the U.S. was open to adults who hold citizenship in Iraq, or could prove their father is Iraqi.

Mr. Al-Saleh’s story is a symbol of a personal struggle for freedom and a greater quest for democracy in Iraq. He served in Saddam Hussein’s military during the first Persian Gulf War and fled to Saudi Arabia in 1991 to escape the oppressive regime.

Mr. Al-Saleh says life under Saddam felt “like you were in jail.” He said a family member was slain for turning off one of the ousted dictator’s televised speeches. He follows the war in Iraq through the American press, but he said that “they make it more of a big deal than they do in Iraq.”

“Iraqis are happy,” Mr. Al-Saleh said. “If it were bad, they wouldn’t be happy.”

Arlo Wagner contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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