Iraqis in U.S. will be able to vote in homeland election

Inconvenience factor: Just 5 cities to have polls

December 30, 2004|By Oscar Avila | Oscar Avila,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Iraqi citizens in the United States are getting a taste of the hope - and the logistical headaches - created by the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq with the news that five U.S. cities will serve as polling sites.

The International Organization for Migration said yesterday that it will organize registration and election facilities in the United States in an ambitious last-minute effort to let expatriates vote in at least 11 countries.

Iraqis in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tenn., and Washington applauded the plan. But Iraqi immigrants in other areas angrily complain that their distance from polling sites threatens the legitimacy of the election, as voters must both register and cast ballots in person.

Jeremy Copeland, spokesman for Iraq's Out-of-Country Voting Program, said election organizers realize the logistics are not perfect. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq chose the IOM, an intergovernmental group in Geneva, to run the election less than two months ago.

Election organizers said they focused on the largest Iraqi population centers abroad, consulting census data and meeting with immigrant leaders. They estimate up to 240,000 U.S. residents might be eligible to vote.

To participate in the election for representatives to Iraq's National Assembly, residents must be at least 18 and be eligible for Iraqi citizenship. That includes naturalized U.S. citizens and the U.S.-born children of Iraqi citizens, said Copeland.

By casting his vote, Aladin Khamis of Chicago said he will prove that his country's history of oppression has ended.

Khamis, 52, said he never had a chance to vote before leaving Iraq in 1977. Since then, the elections under Saddam Hussein's rule have been suspect.

"I think we were all born to live free. When you vote, that means you are free," Khamis said.

Because no voter lists exist for the Iraq election, U.S. residents will have to register between Jan. 17 and Jan. 23 at any of the five U.S. voting sites.

Voters will have the chance to challenge names on the registration lists if they believe aspiring voters are not eligible.

The voting will take place Jan. 28-30. Copeland expects each city to have multiple voting locations, but organizers have not finalized sites yet. Ballots will be in Arabic, Kurdish and English.

While some Iraqis in the United States had hoped to vote by mail or the Internet, Copeland said organizers did not have enough time to set up a system that would work.

Some Iraqis, meanwhile, are beginning to grumble that their areas were not included among the polling sites.

Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo of the Chaldean Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle said he is outraged that his community in San Diego, part of Iraq's Christian minority, will have to travel to Los Angeles twice - to register and to vote.

Jammo said he is considering urging Iraqis in San Diego to boycott the elections.

"If you treat certain people unfairly, then you have a very serious concern about the validity and legitimacy of this representation," Jammo said.

Copeland said organizers hope to set up polling sites in Orange County, a shorter drive from San Diego.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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