As Sunday's election approaches in Iraq, there is concern that voter turnout will be limited by violence and insurgent threats against voters. Many thousands of Iraqis living in other countries will also vote, although their turnout may be diminished by the limited number of voting centers available. However, many overseas Iraqis are looking to play an important role in developing democracy in their country over the long term.
Contact with people in Iraq is part of the daily routine at the Khudairi Group office in west Houston.
Aziz Khudairi, the head of the diversified trading company, just returned from Iraq last week. He is safe at his office in Houston now, but he worries about family members and colleagues who remain in Iraq. He believes the election on Sunday holds great promise for his country, but he also knows that fear of continuing violence will keep many people from participating. Still, he sees the election as an important first step toward a better future for his nation.
"This election is going to do something important. It is going to give some legitimacy to the new government, and that will give it some power, so this is a plus," he said. "Also, it is going to start the process of writing the new constitution, which is very much needed. A lot of basic questions in this constitution need to be dealt with carefully, how to separate religion from government, for example. These are all sticky issues. We need to have very wise people in charge of writing the draft of the new constitution."
Aziz Khudairi expresses patience when it comes to the long-term nature of the process leading to complete democratic rule. He says there is a great threat of civil conflict in Iraq that cannot be easily diminished.
"Iraq will always be a difficult country to rule. Iraq will always be a place where different ideas and thoughts, between left-right, secular against religious, will always struggle," he said. "But, at the end, I do not know how long it will take, but it is going to take some time before Iraq will be a democratic country in the Western sense."
Mr. Khudairi operates his export business primarily from Houston, but he travels frequently to Iraq, and maintains contact with his partners and workers there. He invited VOA to speak by telephone with one of his colleagues in Baghdad, a man named Hussein. He says many people are afraid to vote, but that he and his family will take the risk in order to participate in what he believes is a crucial step for his nation.
"The election is a very good thing, but the situation here is very bad now. The situation outside is that there are many bombings and soldiers," he said. "But we hope that this election will do something for us. We have nothing to lose. This is the last chance for us."
But Aziz Khudairi and his two sons, Mohammed and Subhi, will not vote in the election, because their business requires them to be in Houston and in almost constant contact with their people in Iraq. There are only five places in the United States for Iraqis residing here to vote, and the closest one to Houston is more than a thousand kilometers away in Nashville, Tennessee.
Subhi Khudairi says, even though he will not vote, he believes in the electoral process and sees this election as an important milestone for Iraq.
"They should have had more places available and even offered absentee balloting, but, as flawed as it is, I understand it was a last-minute effort to get more Iraqi involvement in the United States. So, I do applaud them for that, and I believe the process altogether, the concept of the election, is a step in the right direction, though," he said.
His brother, Mohammed, believes he and his family have a special role to play in the effort to establish peace and democracy. Growing up mainly in Texas, but speaking fluent Arabic and traveling occasionally back to Iraq, Mohammed Khudairi says he is able to bridge the cultural gap between Iraqis and Americans. He says this is important because the United States is now committed to helping Iraq for many years to come.
"There needs to be a long-term presence and cooperation between the two countries," he said. "That is a lot easier said than done, obviously, but that is something we are striving for and we are working for."
On Sunday, the Khudairi family in Houston will be watching the news out of Iraq with special interest, and keeping close contact with friends and loved ones who remain in the country.