Program Scrambles to Prepare Overseas Iraqis for Upcoming Elections

An estimated one million Iraqis living outside Iraq are expected to take part in the country's elections for a transitional national assembly at the end of this month. 

The International Organization for Migration's Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program is working to inform and register Iraqi expatriates who are eligible to vote. 

From Amman, Jordan, the program's spokeswoman Monique De Groot said potential voters must be at least 18-years-old, prove their identity and show evidence of their Iraqi nationality.

"Iraqis must be able to prove their eligibility with at least two documents that have been issued by a state, or a state agency or an international institution," she explained.  "Such documents could be a passport, a marriage certificate, a military document, or a driver's license."

She added that security is a legitimate concern at polling stations outside the country, as well.

"I'm not saying that we do expect security problems, but security is an obvious issue that we have to take into account very seriously, with implementation of the operation," she added.  "So, we do work very closely together with the host government on the issue and their particular department within the government, to take care of public security."

Iraqis overseas must register in person, at polling stations in cities in 14 different countries.  These countries are Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Registration lasts  a week,  from January 17 to January 23.  After that, registered voters overseas must return to the polling station to cast their ballots from January 28-30.

Mohamad Hanon, an Iraqi adviser to the program in the United States, says he thinks his fellow Iraqis are, in his words, "excited and eager" to participate.

"For them, it's historical and it's the very first time for them to exercise their democratic right to decide who is going to run the country," he noted.

Mr. Hanon says he does not know whether most members of the Iraqi community in the United States are Arabs or Kurds, Christians or Muslims, Sunnis or Shias.  But he says he believes the overseas bloc will be an important voice in the overall results.

"Over the course of years, during the Baathist regime, during Saddam's period, iraqis have fled, a large number of Iraqis fled the country," he said.  "The numbers are said to be somewhere between three and five million expats.  So, given that number and given how many people are going to vote, I would say there will be a significant influence or impact on the election, itself."

In the United States, polling sites will be set up in five cities -- Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Nashville, Tennesee; and Washington, DC. 

One potential voter is Sarhad Jammo, the Iraqi-American bishop of a Catholic Chaldean church in San Diego, California.

Bishop Jammo says there are 30,000 ethnic Iraqis living in the San Diego-area, all of whom want to exercise their rights to participate in the democratic process to build a new Iraq.  He adds, though, that many of them believe it is not fair that the nearest polling station to his city is three hours away by car.

"And that will create in the heart of the people a feeling of frustration and of, just, protest, and maybe boycotting it [the election] because they say that's what they [the organizers] want," he said.  "They want to bar us from going to polls."

The U.S. spokesman for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, Jeremy Copeland, says the U.S. cities were chosen based on concentration of the local Iraqi community there.

"We think about one-third of Iraqis, just over one-third, actually, are around Detroit and places like Southfield and Dearborn [Michigan]," he explained.  "We're looking at probably about 125,000 Iraqis there.  Also, a large population in Chicago.  There's a significant population in Nashville, Kurdish, in particular.  Also a large population in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as [Washington,] DC.  And, then, there are pockets all over the place -- New York, Washington state, Texas, Arizona, Nebraska."

Mr. Copeland said Iraqis often raise questions about the voting center locations at town hall meetings that have been held in the five U.S. cities.  But he added that potential voters also want to know more about the elections themselves, and the more than 100 political groups that are slated to run.

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