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American Forces Press Service

Iraqis in U.S. Cast Votes in Historic Election

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

NEW CAROLLTON, Md., Jan. 28, 2005 -- Iraqi citizens, many who fled their native country for the United States to escape Saddam Hussein's brutality, came here today to take part in something they never thought they'd live to see: Iraq's first free elections in more than six decades.

Shihab Shamma, whose family fled Baghdad 30 years ago, said he remembers dreaming night after night that a coup might some day topple the brutal dictator. But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that his country might one day hold national elections that paved the way to democracy.

"This is just fantastic," said the University of Maryland professor, as he left the polling station in this community just outside Washington, D.C. The site is one of five in the United States where Iraqis can cast their votes through Jan. 30. "It's something I never dreamed possible," Shamma said.

An estimated 25,000 Iraqis registered earlier this week to vote here and at the other four polling stations in Chicago; Detroit; Nashville, Tenn.; and Los Angeles, according to Roger Bryant, director of the U.S. office for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program.

Absentee votes cast in the United States and 13 other countries in the Middle East, North America, Europe and Australia will be tallied and added to those cast in Iraq on Jan. 30. Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission will certify the results.

More than 2,000 Iraqis, many of whom Bryant said had "waited a lifetime" for this opportunity, were expected to vote at the New Carrollton site during the next three days.

"There's a measure of determination" among the voters, Bryant said. "They recognize that they're reshaping the future of their homeland."

One voter after another, most of whom had seen family members and friends killed under the Saddam regime, reiterated their amazement that they were getting the opportunity to elect their country's new Transitional National Assembly. That 275-member body, in turn, will write Iraq's permanent constitution and elect a president and two vice presidents.

"I'm shocked. I never thought this would happen," agreed Rozh Mutabchi, a native of northern Iraq who arrived with his family in the United States in 1997, when he was 16, to escape Saddam's persecution.

Eight years later, Mutabchi, a student at George Mason University in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, was among about 40 Iraqis who helped man the polls at the New Carrollton site. "This makes me feel really good," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of Iraqis voting. This is an important time for Iraq."

The opportunity to vote had a deeply personal meaning for Hardi Nuri, a Kurd who escaped northern Iraq in 1996, after Saddam had had Nuri's brother and father killed. The Fairfax, Va., resident was so excited that he arrived at the polls an hour before they opened and waited in the frigid cold to ensure he'd be the first person in the United States to cast his vote.

"It's a day of freedom," Nuri said. "It's a day that means there's no more Saddam and a chance for democracy. It's a great day."

As they entered the polling station, each Iraqi dipped an index finger in indelible ink to assure no double voting. Votes were registered on large paper ballots. Many said they were hopeful Iraqis in their homeland would turn out in force on Jan. 30.

Halsho Amin, who traveled from Boston to vote, said he spoke with his brother and sister in northern Iraq by phone and urged them to go to the polls despite fears of violence. "I told them, 'You have to go no matter what's happening,'" Amin said.

Najat Abdullah, a mechanic living in Manassas, Va., said he felt assured that his mother, sister and brother still in northern Iraq would go to the polls. "Of course they'll go," he said. "This has been our dream, and it's the first step toward our democratic future."

Abdullah said he recognizes the elections won't spell an immediate end to the insurgency in Iraq. Recovering from the Saddam regime "will take time and patience," he said. "But today is an important step toward peace and democracy for Iraq, and I feel great about it."

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