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Iraqi Exiles in Australia Vote First in Historic Poll

Iraqi expatriates in Australia have become the first anywhere to vote in Sunday's national elections. Only a small percentage of the Iraqis eligible to take part in the ballot in Australia have registered. Some community leaders have blamed a combination of fear and apathy for the low turnout. Iraqis in 14 countries, including Britain and the United States, are included in this absentee voter program.

Around 12,000 Iraqis have registered to vote in Australia, only 15 percent of those who are eligible. Organizers had hoped that many more would come forward to take part in the country's first elections since the fall of the dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Community leaders here have said that some expatriates are so well settled in their adopted country that they no longer feel a close connection to the politics of Iraq. Others fear that if they do vote, insurgents in Iraq could find out and take revenge on friends and family, even though registration details are confidential.

Still, some expatriate voters, such as Khamis Khamis, believe the election will help build a safe and secure future for Iraq, battered by long years of dictatorship, war and now a deadly insurgency. "This is the major blow for the terrorist organizations who are working to destroy this democratic process, so it's a major win - a major victory - for the Iraqi people against these groups," he said.

As voting got under way in Sydney, a small group of demonstrators gathered outside one election office shouting their opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq. However, the mood has generally been one of optimism.

The Australian government, which has several hundreds troops in and around Iraq, backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its efforts to stabilize the country and establish a democratically elected government.

The government's Treasurer, Peter Costello, thinks the election is important. "Getting a democratic government in Iraq with the support of people and an open ballot is a wonderful achievement and gives us the opportunity for a new start in the Middle East," he said.

The International Organization of Migration, a Geneva advocacy body, organized the voting for Iraqi exiles around the world.

There are election centers in Sydney, Australia's biggest city, and others in the southern state of Victoria. Some voters, however, must travel vast distances to have their say. One Iraqi couple is preparing to fly 3,000 kilometers from Darwin to Sydney to vote in this historic election.

Overseas voting continues until Sunday, when the election will be held in Iraq.