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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Expatriate Iraqis begin to vote

Ali Al-Awadi, left, and Ali Al-Garawi tape Iraqi and U.S. flags to the hood of a van  in Seattle. About a dozen vans filled with Northwest-area Iraqis left Friday to make the trip to Los Angeles to vote in the Iraqi election. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Steve Goldstein Knight Ridder

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. – Saad Alda raised his index finger, stained with purple ink. For the young Iraqi, it was the color of freedom.

“This makes me feel much better for my country,” said Alda, who drove overnight from Boston. “Anything I can do to help my country, I will. From far away, the only thing we can do is vote.”

Amid extraordinary security, expatriate Iraqis around the world began voting Friday for a new National Assembly. In this Washington, D.C. suburb, known chiefly as an Amtrak stop, Iraqis from hundreds of miles away arrived to cast a paper ballot in a meaningful election, most of them for the first time in their lives.

The setting, in the low-slung concrete conference center of a Ramada Inn, seemed slightly bizarre, but the voters spoke as if they had reached nirvana.

Whether clad in elegant furs or casual work clothes, they wore the same expression of pride and near-tearful joy.

“This is truly a historic day,” said Fawaz Saraf, a 47-year-old structural engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “It represents a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, but only a glimpse. We can only see the light when all Iraqis work together to build a better Iraq.”

Mahdi Abdullah, a New York City physician in a dark, formal suit, said he asked his 6-year-old son what democracy meant.

“He told me, ‘It means you can vote the good people in and the bad people out,’ ” Abdullah said.

Voting continues until 5 p.m. Sunday, and many of the Philadelphia-area Iraqis who registered to vote here last week said they would return during the weekend.

Intisar Issa, who was five months pregnant when she walked across mountainous terrain to escape Iraq nine years ago, plans to drive down with her husband and son today.

“I’m crying because I’m so happy,” said the mother of three and business student. “Finally, I get to vote for my country.”

Also planning to arrive today is Philadelphia cabdriver Rahman Alamaru. “It’s very important,” he said. “We want to find a solution for our people in Iraq, to stop the killing and live in peace.”

The Ramada Inn is the only official polling center for expatriate Iraqis living in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States. Election officials originally predicted that as many as 20,000 people might vote at this site, but only 2,048 registered, according to Jeremy Copeland, an official with the Iraq out-of-country voting organization.

Eligible Iraqis may be American citizens, but must be at least 18, born in Iraq, hold citizenship or prove that their father was Iraqi.

About 26,000 of 240,000 eligible Iraqis in the United States registered to vote, Copeland said. There are four other polling centers, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville.

Tens of thousands more are expected to vote at sites in 13 other countries, mostly in Europe and the Middle East.