Iraqis began casting their ballots Thursday for an historic opportunity to elect a new Parliament. For the estimated one and a half million Iraqis living outside of their native land, voting had been underway for several days. But as Quinn Klinefelter reports, some Iraqi expatriates in the United States found casting their ballots to be a challenging experience:
Sporadic applause greets nearly every vote dropped into a ballot box at a converted ballroom in Dearborn. It's one of the roughly half dozen polling centers spread across the United States, including a second site in Michigan at Farmington Hills.
At the Dearborn center, Iraqi Laith Khadim says he's driven from upstate New York to vote after making a similar journey last year to Washington D.C. He says neither trip was fun. "It was freezing. My car broke on the highway,” he says. “And for a moment there was a doubt in my mind: 'What the heck am I doing?' When I reached the place I found women*children and they drove for 10 to 12 hours. I said hey look at these people. These kids give me the strength."
The Dearborn polling center is perhaps the largest in the United States, situated in an area that is home to tens of thousands of Iraqis.
The importance of the election in Iraq -- and the problems expatriates have in reaching U.S. polling places - have been the central topics lately in metro Detroit's Arabic-language newspapers and television shows. On the small Middle Eastern Broadcasting Network of America, based in Southfield, Michigan, talk show guests acknowledge that U.S. polling centers are uncomfortably far away from some Iraqi populations.
The man in charge of the election in Michigan -- Fouad al Najjar -- says those casting ballots in Dearborn are blessed to be close to a large polling site. "That's why I say we are the lucky states. But that decision was made in Baghdad. And I know that for a fact somebody called me from Florida for example, an Iraqi who wanted to vote, and unfortunately I couldn't tell him more than he could go to Nashville Tennessee to vote. And that is a distance."
Some Iraqis on the TV show see a darker motive. Shiite cleric Imam Hasham al Hussainy wonders why the location of several polling centers -- including the Dearborn facility -- was not made public until only days before voting was scheduled to begin. "I mean how they expect Iraqis to build-up their baby democracy if they cannot even help us find a location to vote,” he complains. “Come on we cannot get out of the dictatorship of Saddam and to fall in the bureaucracy."
In fact, Iraqi officials say they did not decide whether their government could even afford to hold out-of-country voting until September. What followed was a massive effort to convince volunteers to work the polls.
Salam al Jawad is the U.S. spokesperson for the Independent Electoral Committee of Iraq, which took charge of the out-of-country voting from a group hired last year by the United Nations. "It's not easy to find people as fast as possible train them and actually put them in place within let's say four weeks," he points out, adding that it's been difficult to even find locations for the voting, because some landlords and police departments feared holding an Iraqi election in a building would automatically make the structure a target for terrorism. He says that it is equally difficult to locate Iraqis who are eligible to vote, since many are exiles or expatriates who fled Saddam's brutal regime and went underground when they arrived in the United States.
The sites finally chosen for the polling centers, according to Mr. al Jawad, are the best the fledgling Iraqi government can find in America. "If you put it in the west they want one in the east,” he says. “If you put it in the north they want one in the south and so on and so forth. Some people are not even willing to travel 10 or 15 miles to vote. To satisfy everybody it is an impossible mission. But I think that given the fact and given the circumstances, a lot of people are much happier this time than before."
One change from last year's first-ever Iraqi election is winning universal praise from expatriates. Previously, Iraqis had to travel to a center to register, then return a week or two later to actually cast their ballot. This year, Iraqis were permitted to register and vote on the same day.