Iraqi expatriates cast ballots

Immigrants travel to Virginia, other states in hopes of making change back home


MCLEAN, Va. -- With the din of Arabic speakers and the waving of the Iraqi flag yesterday, the lobby of the Best Western here resembled that of an upscale Baghdad hotel.

But the festive scene of Iraqi expatriates voting in Northern Virginia for their country's first full-term parliament contrasted with the combat zone they call home. By most accounts of the voters here, the U.S.-led invasion of their country was a good thing.

"Hopefully, they will do the same for others," Iraqi Mukhlis Dosky said of the American military. "I hope for this for all the people of the Middle East. ... I feel sorry for people who live under dictatorship."

In the first of three days for out-of-country voting, an ebb and flow of U.S. Iraqi immigrants filtered through two layers of security here -- Fairfax County police outside the hotel and a private security company inside -- to cast votes and receive a purple ink-stained forefinger as a mark of their electoral participation. About 240,000 Iraqi expatriates living in the United States are eligible to cast votes for the Iraqi parliament, which will select Iraq's prime minister and president.

The Best Western near the congested holiday shopping of Tysons Corner -- 19 miles from the Capitol -- is one of eight polling sites nationally and 14 worldwide. Others in the United States are in or near Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago and Nashville, Tenn., and two are outside Detroit.

Nearly 24,500 Iraqis living in the United States voted during Iraq's transitional national assembly elections in January. In that vote, 1,919 Iraqis living in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic cast ballots -- 22,000 had been expected.

This time, election organizers simplified the process -- allowing voters to register at the site rather than two weeks beforehand -- in the hope of generating a greater turnout. Yesterday evening, Safa Alkateb, the commission's Washington manager, said the early turnout in Virginia appeared to mirror the January elections in the East Coast region, which took place at the New Carrollton Ramada Inn.

Nationally yesterday, there was a "constant, steady flow of voters ... and no hiccups or problems" said Michael Youash, spokesman for Iraq's Out of Country Voting Program in the United States. In the last election, voter turnout increased incrementally each day at the heaviest polling sites -- Detroit and Chicago -- and picked up on the second day at other sites, he said.

In a news release Friday, Mohamed Hindawi, the manager of U.S. voting for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, called expatriates "the cream of our society" and said Iraqis living abroad need "to realize that they are very important to our nation."

Speaking by telephone yesterday from the polling site outside Chicago, Youash said expatriates are critical for Iraq's budding democracy because they are usually highly educated. "We need to keep these people involved. They need to keep in mind that they have a stake in Iraq," he said.

Iraqis arrived at the Best Western by the busload from North Carolina, on Independence Air into Washington Dulles International Airport from New Hampshire, and in car pools from upstate New York.

Dosky, 37, is a Kurd who drove 300 miles in a Chevy Blazer from Binghamton, N.Y., with his wife and a neighbor. After voting, he raised his ink-stained finger and announced, "This is a great day for the Iraqi people."

Awat Ali, a mother of seven who emigrated from Kurdistan to Manchester, N.H., in 1996, said she wanted to return to Iraq when the war ceased. "We'd like to help make this new democracy," she said.

As she spoke, a man shouting in Arabic stood in the middle of the crowded room and professed his love "for [President] Bush, for [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, for the United States," and drew applause and laughter from his fellow expatriates.

Nearby, Shiite Muslim Ayad Al-Saidi, a 39-year-old Washington Hilton steward born in Najaf, wore four small Iraqi flags fixed to his head with an Ace bandage. He carried a sign that read: "Yes Freedom. Thanks U.S.A. No Terrorists."

Next to the "No" he had rubbed the purple ink from his forefinger, for emphasis.

"This is the worst, worst people ever. These are not the Iraqi people," he said of the insurgents. "We came here to vote so we could reclaim Iraq."

Next to him was a friend, Tai Badri, a Sunni Muslim from Samarra, south of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Badri, 32, a biotech researcher living in Alexandria, Va., fingered prayer beads and announced that Shiites and Sunnis -- divided under Saddam's Sunni-led Baathist Party -- now share an unbreakable bond.

"We are both Iraqis," he said.

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