- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

An Iraqi physician visiting his son in Delaware, a Philadelphia police officer and a family from Northern Virginia were among the hundreds of current or former Iraqi citizens who converged on a Prince George’s County polling place yesterday to register to vote in their country’s first independent election in nearly 50 years.

The Iraqis, many traveling in groups of two or three, trickled into a hastily created polling place at the New Carrollton Ramada Inn conference center between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Each spent about three minutes providing documentation of their age and their nationality and promised to return to vote in less than two weeks.

“It’s been steadily slow,” said Ali Hussain, a presiding officer with the International Organization for Migration, which is organizing the elections at five sites in the United States and many more around the world. In the United States, registration also took place in Los Angeles; Nashville, Tenn.; Chicago; and Detroit.

Nationwide, about 240,000 Iraqis are eligible to vote. Voters are being asked to pick members of the 275-seat assembly, which will have a one-year mandate. The panel’s responsibilities will include electing a president and two deputy presidents and drafting Iraq’s constitution.

Nouman Shubbar, 41, a police sergeant in Philadelphia, said he left his home at 10 a.m. and drove 2 hours so he could be among the first to register.

“It’s a historical event,” he said. “I’m very happy, and I’m very proud that for the first time we have free elections.”

Mr. Shubbar brought his 7- and 10-year-old sons and said he was looking forward to returning for the vote on Jan. 28 to 30. He said he has talked with many others in Philadelphia’s Iraqi community who plan to register.

Osama Al-Moosawi lives in Delaware and traveled to New Carrollton yesterday morning with his father, a physician who lives in Iraq, and his two sisters. His parents are in the United States on a six-month visa and did not want to miss the opportunity to vote.

Mr. Al-Moosawi, 32, was virtually speechless as his family recorded the event on film, posing for numerous pictures in front of the registration table.

“It’s amazing, unbelievable,” said Mr. Al-Moosawi, who has lived in the United States for eight years. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Organizers say they expect about 22,000 people to register in New Carrollton before Sunday’s deadline, with busloads expected to arrive from Boston, New York and Philadelphia later in the week.

The run-up to the registration period has been plagued by confusion among potential voters, who have struggled to find out where, when or how to vote and whether they are eligible. Some were frustrated by the limited number of polling centers and by a prohibition on mail-in ballots and Internet voting because of fears of fraud.

Voter registration is open to those 18 and older who are present or former Iraqi citizens, who were born in Iraq or whose fathers are Iraqi. Voters must have documents to prove they are eligible.

For the most part, the first day went smoothly. A little more than 100 volunteers manned 15 booths separated by blue curtains and adorned with posters and instructions written in English and Arabic.

Hoda Al-Sabbak of Arlington brought her three daughters to witness her and her mother registering to vote.

“We’re very happy,” she said. “We can’t believe this day has come.”

She said her only complaint was that there was some confusion about one of her mother’s documents, so the family has to go home and come back again to complete the registration.

“They shouldn’t be so difficult and particular,” Mrs. Al-Sabbak said. “You should facilitate the process. We’ve had obstacles for so many years.”

Security was tight for the event. Voters were directed to tents, where private security guards used hand-held metal-detector wands to screen them.

Marked and unmarked police cars checkered a lot across the street from the hotel where voters were directed to park. Police surrounded the hotel, and police dogs were deployed around the conference center.

Security became an issue last week when Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson publicly complained that federal officials did not notify county officials of the election plans and that organizers had submitted what Mr. Johnson called a “totally inadequate” security plan.

Jeremy Copeland, a spokesman for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, could not say who submitted the initial security plan, but he dismissed the security concerns as a misunderstanding.

“We have worked them out,” Mr. Copeland said. “[Security] is a high concern. We’re working extensively with Prince George’s County officials and federal and state authorities to ensure the safety of the voters, the polling staff and the community.”

The stories of registrants traveling hundreds of miles to polling places, tight security and a light first-day turnout were mirrored at many of the other election stations worldwide.

In Nashville, about 25 Kurdish men waited outdoors in temperatures in the teens to register. The city is home to up to 8,000 Iraqis, who are mostly Kurdish, a people who suffered under the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Detroit area has the largest population of Iraqi immigrants in the United States. Up to 80,000 in Michigan are eligible to participate in this month’s election.

The Southern California location — the only one in the western United States — is the decommissioned El Toro Marine Base in Irvine. Election officials estimated that up to 35,000 Iraqis will register and vote there.

A Navy base in Amsterdam was cordoned off with metal barriers for a one-block area and guarded by police vans and at least one patrol boat on a nearby canal, as people began registering to vote there yesterday.

At a registration office tucked away in Skarholmen, a suburb south of Stockholm that is home to many of the city’s immigrants, would-be voters filed through metal detectors, outnumbered by election officials, police and security guards.

Britain set up just three polling centers — in Glasgow, Manchester and London — forcing voters to travel long distances, first to register and then to cast their ballots.

Likewise, organizers of the Australian vote complained that as many as 5,000 Iraqis living in western and southern Australia have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest polling center.

Earlier this month, elections officials in Iraq announced that voting centers would be opened only in the eastern capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne and that postal or absentee voting would not be allowed.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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