Just three weeks before thousands of Iraqi immigrants in the United States are to cast absentee ballots in their homeland's first national election in more than a generation, efforts to organize the voting here are beset by delays in planning and logistical obstacles.
The team hired by Iraq's electoral commission to run the U.S.-based portion of the election, which officials said may draw up to 240,000 voters, is still scrambling to find polling stations and hire personnel. Its campaign to educate people about how and where to register is just getting off the ground. And with only five designated election centers — one in Washington — thousands of Iraqis will have to travel hundreds of miles to reach a polling station.
Once there, they face the daunting task of choosing from among 111 parties on the ballot, including such groups as the Hashemite Iraqi Royal Gathering, the Unified Iraq Coalition, the List of Independents and the Gathering of Democratic Tribes of Iraq.
Unfamiliar to most first-generation Iraqi immigrants, these names mean even less to the Iraqi-Americans who have never been to Iraq but are eligible to vote because their fathers were born there.
"There is no information available [about] how people can vote or where," said Najmaldin Karim of Silver Spring, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute. "I think the people who are trying to do this are totally ignorant or incompetent or both."
Imam Husham Al Husainy, a Shiite cleric and director of the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center in Dearborn, Mich. — which has one of the largest concentrations of Iraqi immigrants — said he has gotten hundreds of calls complaining about the election arrangements.
"I have people in every state, they have not been reached, they don't know where to go and what to do," said Al Husainy. "This is the dream of their life to have elections. This is ridiculous. ... It reminds me of Iraq in Saddam's time."
The Jan. 30 election will determine a 275-seat National Assembly with a one-year mandate to draft a permanent national constitution.
Limited polling places
Jeremy Copeland, U.S. chief of external relations of the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, which is organizing the balloting in the United States, said that his office is sympathetic about the long distances some Iraqis will have to travel but that in the short time available, it is possible to run only a limited election.
The five centers, which also include Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, were selected, he said, because they have the "densest pockets" of Iraqis.
"We hope that through picking these five cities, we will make it easy for the majority of the Iraqis in the United States to take part in this historic election," said Copeland. "We know that many Iraqis have waited their whole lives to take part in this vote, and so we want them to have their voices heard."
Copeland said the voter education effort has been hampered because "we still don't know all of our polling sites." But he said his organization will be getting information out soon through television, radio and newspaper advertisements. Information is also available at www.iraqocv.org or by calling 800-916-8292.
The vote here is part of an effort to bring the Iraqi election to as many as one million eligible voters among an estimated four million Iraqi exiles in 14 countries. The International Organization for Migration, a non-governmental group, was hired by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to run the effort. The commission is spending as much as $92 million on the program, which was launched in November.
Copeland, whose office is based in the District, gauged that of an estimated 360,000 Iraqis living in the United States perhaps 240,000 might qualify to vote. The United States has the third largest Iraqi population behind those in Syria and Jordan.
Several polling stations will be set up in each of the five voting centers, Copeland said. In Washington, his office is looking for two or three sites that have parking and could be easily secured, he said. Security, he added, is "a large concern for us and something we're making a high priority."
Copeland said that the stations could potentially serve as many as 20,000 Iraqi voters who live in the Washington area and elsewhere in the Northeast.
Under Iraqi electoral authorities' rules, voter registration will take place Jan. 17 to Jan. 23. Those who qualify must return to the same polling station to vote Jan. 28 to Jan. 30. Ballots will be available in Kurdish and Arabic, and voters will have a finger marked with indelible ink to prevent repeaters.
To register, Iraqis must have been at least 18 by Dec. 31, and present two documents. One must be a photo ID, and the other must prove that the would-be voter is an Iraqi citizen or a former Iraqi citizen who acquired U.S. citizenship, or that the voter's father was born in Iraq.
Sending a message
Jamal Fadel, a physician who lives in College Park, said he is excited about participating in the election.
"We don't want the terrorists to win," said Fadel, 47, who reasons that a large election turnout "will give ... a message for al Qaeda that the Iraqi people don't want them."
Alyaa Mazyad, 26, a Reston homemaker, also grew up in Iraq and said she is determined to vote "because it's the first democracy election for the Iraqis." Like many other Iraqis, however, she said she still has no idea who she will vote for, because, "I don't know all the names of the candidates."
Many Iraqis here are hoping that a new elected government will bring peace and order to their homeland. Ghazi Tememi, a pharmacist from Fairfax, said he regards the election as "a way to unite Iraq rather than fragment Iraq." And Dhiya Al Saadawi, owner of Al Hikma Bookstore in Falls Church, said he hopes that "after this election ... the government will have more power."
Although many Sunni Muslims in Iraq are not enthusiastic about the election because they fear it will lead to a government dominated by Shiites, that is not a universal sentiment among Sunnis here.
"I'm not ambivalent," said Dhia Al Doori, a physician and Sunni Iraqi who lives in Cheverly. "I want the election to happen, definitely. We have too much stuff going on that has to be corrected ... and without having a sovereign, elected government, it won't be done very effectively."
Al Doori, 50, said he is leaning toward voting for a party sponsored by one of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics because it appears moderate and organized. "I'll probably swing that way," he said.