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For expatriates, voting is not automatic

Iraqis Head To Polls in Maryland
Dean Ali, 32, of Boston places his vote for the 2005 Iraqi Election in New Carrolton Maryland, on Friday. The polling site at a Ramada Inn next to Washington D.C.'s Capital Beltway is the only place for Iraqis living in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to vote. Micah Walter / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Ihsan Al Yassiry had been living “underground” in Iraq for years, hiding from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Fleeing to the United States in 1992 and now living in St. Louis, Mo., Al Yassiry optimistically likens the Iraqi election to a "magic wand.”

“Everything will turn shiny and gold,” he said, as he believes the election will trigger a domino effect that will spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

But for Farouq Al-Khalidi, a 67-year-old Iraqi physician living in Binghampton, N.Y., the election is an “Alice in Wonderland situation,” “bizarre," and "paradoxical."

He expanded, "When we have a country under military occupation and people intimidated by violence and a lack of security, I don't know what kind of election that is."

But even though Al-Yassiry and Al-Khalidi have vastly different views on the election in their homeland, both had hoped to vote this weekend.  

Taking a voyage to vote
Al Yassiry plans to realize his dream Saturday. He, his wife and his cousins will pack up their minivans, brave the harsh winter weather, and travel five hours each way to the nearest voting location in Chicago. 

He made the same trip last weekend to register, and compared his happiness to that of “the birth to his first son.” He said the mood was “like going to wedding.” 

“My sister in Iraq will risk her life to vote,” Al Yassiry said, “so I’m not going to complain about spending the day in a car.” 

But for Al-Khalidi, like many others Iraqi expatriates, traveling several hours to vote is simply "impractical."

In the United States, polling stations have been set up in five cities: Washington, D.C., Detroit, Nashville, Chicago and Los Angeles. Eligible voters must be 18 years of age and an Iraqi citizen. 

Approximately 26,000 Iraqis out of an estimated 240,000 eligible Iraqi expatriates in the United States have registered. Some critics blame low turnout on the strict and time-consuming registration and voting process, as well as the limited polling locations.

For example, Al-Khalidi, who has lived in this county for 48 years, had wanted to vote, simply as a matter of principle. But when confronted with the option of undertaking a possibly 10-hour trip to either of the polling stations nearest to him, in Washington or Detroit, he decided, "It's just too far away.

"Not that I'm convinced that it would make a lot of difference, but I would have given it a try if [polling stations] had been closer," Al-Khalidi said.

Both the registration, which occurred between Jan. 17 and Jan. 25, and voting, which takes place Friday through Sunday, must be done in person.

According to Jeremy Copeland, spokesman for the Iraq Out-of-Country voting program in the United States, in-person registration and voting was absolutely necessary due to time constraints and to prevent any attempts at voter fraud. 

Voters will select the 275-member assembly that will draft Iraq’s new constitution.

The paper ballots will be counted by election staff in all five U.S. cities starting Tuesday. Once the counting is finished, on Feb. 3 at the latest, the International Organization for Migration will give the results to election officials in Iraq, who will announce them, according to Copeland.

Not fair?
But for Iraqi expatriates like Ali Hussam, the Director of Research and Education at the School of Medicine in Columbia, Mo., this process is simply “not fair.” 

He and his wife had planned to register in Chicago last weekend. “We were going to pick up our friends in St. Louis, spend the night, and then all drive to Chicago together,” he said. But when they woke up at 5 a.m. and saw blizzard conditions in the forecast, they had to cancel the trip. 

“It was depressing,” he said. “We were going to miss an historic event.” Plus, his friends from St. Louis plan to cast their ballot for a different candidate than he was, and Hussam wanted to “nullify their vote” and help ensure a victory for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.  

Crucial issues at stake
For those Iraqi expatriates who do plan on voting, the election goes to the heart of their hopes for Iraq, affecting the very survival of their family and loved-ones living in the country. In the case of Hussam and Al Yassiry, these relatives are urging them to vote as well. 

As far as Al Yassiry is concerned, the top issues are security, followed by government corruption.  “Right now, some see this as an opportunity to take advantage of the poor," he said. "Nothing is getting to the people who need the help and the service.” 

Ghassan Al Eqabi, 51, a staff scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, and he too will travel five hours to vote Saturday.  For him, the spread of democracy is the most important issue at stake. 

“I think Iraq will change the neighborhood,” he said. “The countries in the Middle East will start to think about democracy and study it, so it will be sort of a discussion on the street.  And then everyone will ask, ‘Why don’t we have it?’”