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Iraqis in America Register to Vote in Iraq's Elections

In the gymnasium of a Muslim school in Dearborn, Michigan, Haidar Al-Saadi, 23, is attending a meeting about the January 30th Iraqi elections. As young boys and teenagers practice their jump shots on the basketball court, older men and women talk politics.

Even though Mr. Al-Saadi left Iraq with his family when he was an infant and has not been back since, he plans to cast a vote in Iraq's first free, competitive election in more than half a century.

"I think it is important for all Iraqis to make sure that the people who are living in Iraq are in good hands," he says. "In order for us to do that we need to take part in the voting process, so that the right people are put into place, so they can make sure that all of the Iraqi people are taken care of."

Mr. Al-Saadi is among the many Iraqis living in America who have begun registering to vote in Iraq's elections. The United States is one of 14 countries where Iraqi expatriates may cast a ballot. Registration will be open for a total of seven days, ending January 23 [Editor's note: since this report was filed, the registration period has been extended two days until January 25]. Dearborn - just outside Detroit -- is home to several thousand Iraqis, including many Shiite Muslims who fled Iraq after a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

About 100,000 Iraqis in the Detroit area could be eligible to vote, according to John Gattorn. He heads the Detroit field office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a group based in Switzerland that is organizing the balloting outside Iraq.

"If you have some connection with Iraq, you're going to be able to vote," says Mr. Gattorn. "If you can prove that with any ID, even if it is American, and even if you're an American citizen, you're going to be able to vote." He says the number of eligible voters across America may reach 250,000. "Voters must be at least 18," he explains. "They must have been born in Iraq or prove that their father was born there. They're eligible to vote even if they've never set foot in Iraq."

That is the case for Martin Manna, who heads the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. Chaldeans are Christians who form a minority of Iraq's population, but are the majority of Iraqis in metropolitan Detroit. Mr. Manna was born a few years after his father fled Iraq to protect himself and his family from the government of Saddam Hussein. His father "was the assistant editor of the daily paper," Mr. Manna says, "and wasn't really allowed to express his views. The editor was murdered, and my dad thought he and his family would be next. So he escaped and came to America, like so many others did."

But not all Iraqis in the United States are happy with how the election will be held here. The International Organization for Migration has set up registration and polling stations in five U.S. cities that have significant Iraqi populations -- Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Nashville and Los Angeles. Chaldeans, Muslims and other Iraqi groups say they also have significant populations in places like Arizona, Florida and Texas. They complain that it will be a significant hardship for Iraqis in those areas to get to a polling place -- first to register and then, at the end of the month, to cast a ballot. IOM Officials say they tried to include as many Iraqis as possible, given the short amount of time the group had to organize the balloting outside of Iraq.

As boys wrap up their basketball games at the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Afthal Alshami says he is eager to vote and, for the first time, do something for his native country. "For the last 25 years, I have worked in the U.S.A, I have helped the U.S.A. as much as I could," he says. "Now this is the time that I see myself in the other image -- the Iraqi image -- and this is where I am trying to help as much as I could."

Other Iraqis who plan to vote say similar things -- that no matter how long they have been in the United States, participating in the election is making them feel both patriotic and a bit nostalgic for the country they left behind.