On Monday (January 17th), Iraqis living in the United States began registering to vote in Iraq's elections, scheduled for later this month. The United States is one of 14 countries where Iraqi expatriates may cast a ballot. Interest in the election is running high in the American cities that will have polling sites, but many Iraqis in other parts of the country complain they're being disenfranchised. Michael Leland has more from Dearborn, Michigan.
Even though Haidar Al-Saadi left Iraq with his family when he was an infant, and hasn't been back in the country since … the 23-year-old plans to cast a vote in Iraq's first free, competitive election in more than half a century.
I think it is important for all Iraqis to make sure that the people who are living in Iraq are in good hands. In order for us to do that we need to take part in the voting process, so that the right people are put into place, so they can make sure that all of the Iraqi people are taken care of.
Mr. Al-Saadi is attending a meeting about the January 30th election, at this Muslim school gymnasium in Dearborn, Michigan. As young boys and teenagers practice their jumpshots on the basketball court, older men and women talk politics. Dearborn is home to several thousand Iraqis, including many Shiite Muslims who fled Iraq after a failed uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
John Gattorn heads the Detroit field office of the International Organization for Migration, a group based in Switzerland that's running the balloting in the United States and 13 other countries. He says about 100-thousand Iraqis in the Detroit area could be eligible to vote, and about a quarter-million nationwide.
If you have some connection with Iraq, you're going to be able to vote. If you can prove that with any ID, even if it is American, and even if you're an American citizen, you're going to be able to vote.
Voters must be at least 18. They must have been born in Iraq, or prove that their father was born there. They're eligible to vote even if they've never set foot in Iraq. That's the case for Martin Manna, who heads the Chaldean-American Chamber of Commerce. Chaldeans are Christians who form a minority of Iraq's population, but are the majority of Iraqis in Metro Detroit. Mr. Manna says he was born a few years after his father fled Iraq to protect himself and his family from Saddam's government.
He was the assistant editor of the daily paper, and wasn't really allowed to express his views. The editor was murdered, and my dad thought he and his family would be next, so he escaped and came to America, like so many others did.
But not all Iraqis in the United States are happy with how the election will be held here. The International Organization for Migration has set up registration and polling stations in five U.S. cities with significant Iraqi populations. They are: Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Nashville and Los Angeles. Chaldeans, Muslims and other Iraqi groups say they also have significant populations in places like Arizona, Florida and Texas. They complain that it will be a significant hardship for Iraqis in those areas to get to a polling place. They'll have to make two long trips - one to register, and another at the end of the month to cast a ballot. I-O-M Officials say they tried to include as many Iraqis as possible, given the short amount of time the group had to organize the voting outside of Iraq.
As boys wrap up their basketball games at the Muslim American Youth Academy in Dearborn, Afthal Alshami talks about just how eager he is to vote. He says it will be the first time he's been able to do something for his native country.
For the last (past) 25 years, I have worked in the U-S-A, I have helped the U-S-A as much as I could. I work in the engineering field. Now this is the time that I see myself in the other image - the Iraqi image, and this is where I am trying to help as much as I could.
Other Iraqis who plan to vote say similar things - that no matter how long they've been in the United States, participating in this election is making them feel both patriotic and a bit nostalgic for the country they left behind. For VOA News Now, I'm Michael Leland in Dearborn, Michigan.