Iraqi expatriates around the United States have been voting since Friday in Iraq's first democratic election in decades.
Iraqis are voting in Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, suburban Washington DC, and here in Irvine, just south of Los Angeles. Salman Al-Barkawi made the 14-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, saying he wants a voice in his country's future. "And for the new generation to have a new freedom, and we pave the road for our children in the future, and establish a democracy and freedom in Iraq," he said.
Voters are handed a huge ballot with slates of candidates. They make their choice, then fold the ballot and cast it. Applause is heard from voters still waiting in line. "Mr. Al-Barkawi says he selected candidates who have an established record of opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein, but he adds that the act of voting itself is important," he said.
Hussain Al-Harbi drove from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, with 14 family members and friends. His teenage daughter translated as he explained why he made the journey. "For 35 years, nobody enjoyed their time while Saddam was there. So right now, they want to make a change so they can start a new life," he said.
He adds that just a few days ago, his older brother in Baghdad was killed in a bomb attack. Three brothers and three sisters still live in Iraq, and Mr. Al-Harbi is optimistic that conditions will improve for them after this election.
Abbas Al-Remahi also drove to this polling place from Phoenix, Arizona. "Really, we enjoy this moment. We drove six hours, but we've been waiting for 30 years for this time," he said.
Nearly 4,000 Iraqis have registered to vote at a former Marine Corps base outside Los Angeles. Nearly 26,000 are expected to vote across the United States, and Iraqi expatriates will vote in 13 other countries, including Jordan, Turkey, Australia, and Britain.
Yousif Poulus is casting his ballot after driving to Irvine from the central California town of Modesto. "I believe every Iraqi, if he believes in the freedom of his country, he's going to do it. He's going to take this opportunity," he says.
Virginia Badal, who lives in northern California, says she made the journey here on behalf of Iraq's people. "For our children in Iraq. We're doing this for their sake. We're living here right now, but we're still thinking of our people back home. And it's a good opportunity for us to stand behind them and do whatever is good for them," she says.
Edward Haskel left Iraq in 1969, and hopes that after the election, his native country finally take its place among the world's democracies. "We've been waiting for this moment for the last 83 years. We want to have a democratic country. Iraq is a very rich country, a very cultured country. We can do good for all the nations around the world," he says.
Muhammed Al-Basrawi says this election offers an opportunity. "This is very, very important because for too many years, we cannot choose any government or any president," he says.
Osama Muhammed agrees that this election is important. "It's our responsibility for our future. So it's our country, and we have to vote," he says.
The tremendous distances between U.S polling places have dissuaded many from voting. But others traveled long hours by car, bus or airplane: Chaldean Christians from San Diego, Shiite Muslims from Los Angeles, Kurds from Oregon, and Sunni Muslims from all around the region.
One man, Faisal Al-Hamad, says he had to vote. "I wait for this day for all my life. That's why I came," he says.
Osama Mohammed believes that voting in this election will make a difference. "We hope so. We are so optimistic. We hope that this will change something in our country. It's the first step to do that, so we hope so," he says.
Voters left the polling place with ink-stained index fingers, a security measure intended to prevent double voting. Then they gathered in clusters to talk about their country's future.