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    Expatriate Iraqis in Australia Line Up to Vote as Historic Poll Approaches

    Phil Mercer

    More than a million Iraqis living outside the country are expected to take part in the historic elections later this month. The first out-of-country registrations have taken place in Australia. There, expatriate Iraqis are expressing optimism as the ballot approaches, despite warnings that the elections in their homeland could be bloody and violent.

    Around 40,000 Iraqi exiles and refugees in Australia are expected to cast early votes next week for Iraq's January 30 election.

    The first voter first to register anywhere outside Iraq was Nassima Barzani, a 69-year-old Kurdish refugee who lost her brother and 18 other male relatives, taken away during the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein and never seen again.

    She says she hopes the election would herald a new beginning for her troubled homeland.

    "I lost a lot of relatives during Saddam's regime and all the time I ran away from our country, my town, that's why I want to be one of the person to vote for another future," she explained.

    Iraqis in 14 countries, including Britain and the United States, are taking part in an absentee voter system called the Out of Country Voting Program. The program was set up by the International Organization of Migration, a private, Geneva-based non-governmental body. More than a million people are eligible world wide.

    There are five election centers in Sydney, Australia's biggest city, and a similar number in the state of Victoria. Iraqis living on the other side of the Australian continent, in Perth and farther north, will have to undertake a long and expensive journey to register, and then return later to vote. The long distances will effectively disenfranchise some of them.

    Bernie Hogan, one of the Out of Country organizers, says a lack of time and money is preventing the program from reaching all Iraqis abroad.

    "When we found out there was a significant [Iraqi' population in Perth, we asked if we could provide facilities there and we were told no, on the basis that if we opened up facilities in Perth, that the other 13 countries where there are significant Iraqi populations that didn't have facilities, would also make those requests, and that would be problematic for the program at large," he said.

    Despite the logistical obstacles, the election is dominating conversation among Australia's Iraqis. At voting centers, there has been a steady flow of people arriving with identity cards and passports, eager to register. Most express hope and enthusiasm, along with concern about the threat to the election posed by Iraqi insurgents.

    Zainab Al Hessanya, a 19-year-old student, arrived with her mother to complete her registration. She shares a sense of optimism about Iraq's future.

    "Oh, we're very happy to come and vote to make our country more better, a safer place," she said. "No war, no fighting between each other, some government - a good government. I hope that will come true."

    The head of the Iraqi Migrants Council, Kasim Abood, says he has been waiting 24 years for this vote.

     

    "It's a historic and significant day for Iraqis living in Australia. Being the first to vote, out of countries voting in all the world, that's a moment I can't describe," he said. "The moment of moments, the day of days, when all Iraqi people have been waiting for this day…It's a historic moment to put our country on the first step of its democracy and stability and Iraqi people look at it as a vote against terrorism and to rebuild a new Iraq for all Iraqi people."

    Mesan came to register in Sydney with his wife and three children, eager to make sure his voice is heard. Like many others who fled Iraq during the brutal Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Mesan is hoping for a brighter future.

    "I am very happy to choose a new Iraqi government, so I am very happy, my wife also, my whole family," he said.

    When asked what sort of future would you like to see Iraq develop?  Mesan responded, "a free Iraq."

    Overseas voting runs January 28 - 30, and the vote in Iraq itself is scheduled for the 30.

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