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Tens of Thousands of Iraqis In America Expected to Be Part of Historic Balloting

The polls are open Friday through Sunday for Iraqis living in the United States to cast ballots in their homeland's first free election in modern history. Organizers of the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting program (Iraq OCV) expect nearly 100% of registered voters to participate. But the total number of voters at the five U.S. balloting sites may be lower than anticipated.

That is because only slightly more than 10% of the estimated 240,000 Iraqis who were eligible to register did so, even though the registration period was extended this week by two days.

Those involved in the process are citing several reasons. "Over the weekend, when we were expecting our highest turnout in places like Detroit and Chicago, where the large Iraqi communities are, there was a heavy-duty snowstorm," notes Jeremy Copeland, spokesman for Iraq OCV in the United States. "Other possibilities are things like documentation, or people fearing for their safety."

Rawand Darwesh, a graduate student at American University, expected the turnout to be light. "They split the process into two processes, the registration one day and then the voting one day," he says. "Not everybody is able or has the time or financial capacity to come register, then travel back to his own city, then come to vote."

Jeremy Copeland of the Iraq-Out-of-Country Voting Program says it was necessary to separate the registration from the voting process, in order to create a voters list. "International law requires a display period in between to allow people to challenge the voters list," he says. "We allow agents from political entities in Iraq to look at the voters list. If they believe someone isn't eligible to vote, they can challenge that name and their right to vote."

Many of those who registered in the Washington, DC suburb of New Carrolton, Maryland came in groups, bringing friends and relatives with them.

Nasriden Khoshnaw, who has lived in the United States for eight years, not only brought his sister, brother-in-law, and wife along on the two-and-a half hour drive to the registration site, he also brought his son. 9 year-old Ali is too young to vote himself, but he is aware that the adults in his family would be voting for Kurdish freedom and that it was an important day.

"This is a historic day," Kemin Abdul Kadir agreed , who drove from Pennsylvania to register. "I'm 27 years old. This is the first time I vote in any election."

Registration was not only open to immigrants, but also to Iraqi Americans who have never lived in Iraq. All they needed to do was provide documentation to verify that their father was an Iraqi citizen. Narmeen Reger, who brought her father's birth certificate, said he left Iraq in the 1940s. "I think he would have wanted to see this happen,' she told VOA. "And I would like to take my children to see where their grandfather was born."

Carol Basri's father was also born in Iraq. She traveled by train from New York to register, and considers it an honor to be able to vote in the Iraqi election. "Iraq was the first place to give ethics to the world with the Code of Hammurabi," said Ms. Basri. "The first place to have legal cases and arbitration was under the Code of Hammurabi, and so the rule of law was always important. To me the pillar of rule of law is the rule of democracy."

Ms. Basri says she believes democracy is the future for all of the Middle East.

Between Friday and Sunday, Jeremy Copeland of the Iraq-Out-of-Country Voting Program expects 25,000 people to return to the U.S. city where they registered and cast their ballot for the future of Iraqi democracy.