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Friday, January 07, 2005

Iraqis in Michigan gear up to vote

About 95,000 living in the state are eligible to cast their ballots in historic first election.

By Tom Greenwood and Christine MacDonald at the The Detroit News:

Afthal Alshami, an Iraqi expatriate, is gearing up to do something he's never been able to do in his homeland: cast a vote for its leaders.

And in Metro Detroit and the state of Michigan, he'll be in good company.

In Iraq's first national election -- set for Jan. 28 through 30 for expatriates -- Michigan is expected to have the largest contingent of voters in the United States. Metro Detroit is one of five regions in which eligible Iraqis can register and vote.

Interest, excitement and confusion about the process continue among Iraqis.

Despite their interest, others believe the election lacks international legitimacy.

There are an estimated 240,000 Iraqis in the United States eligible to vote, and about 95,000 are in Michigan, which is the largest population in the country, election officials said.

"Oh my, yes people here are interested in the upcoming election," said Alshami, a spokesperson for Dearborn's Iraqi Expatriates Electoral Rights Committee.

"We have been talking to voters in many states, including Texas, California, Florida and Pennsylvania. They are all anxious to vote. This is the first time ever for Iraqis to have the opportunity to decide the future of the country and they are really excited about it."

Excitement is running high among many in Metro Detroit's large Iraqi-American community, with civic leaders such as Alshami doing their best to educate and motivate their fellow Iraqis about the upcoming vote. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq ruled in November that Iraqis living abroad can vote -- even second-generation Iraqis with American citizenship.

But as election organizers rush to finalize voting details, many expatriates across the country are frustrated because they still are not sure where they will vote and others say there's a lack of information on the political parties. In Michigan, registration and voting locations haven't yet been finalized.

It's estimated that up to 1 million Iraqi expatriates scattered around the globe will vote, according to the International Organization for Migration, which will oversee the out-of-country voting.

It's not clear how much influence the expatriate vote will have. About 15 million people living in Iraq are eligible to vote, but turnout there may be suppressed by threats of violence and boycotts.

Including expatriates in the United States in the process may give the impression that the United States is manipulating the outcome, said Fred Pearson, director of the Wayne State University's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

"They will be viewed by some as a foreign element," Pearson said. "It's a strange kettle of fish to have external people voting on an election like this."

But Haidar Al-Saadi, a 23-year-old Dearborn Heights resident who was born in Iraq, believes that including expatriates was the right choice.

"It shows the effort is being made to make this as neutral as possible," said Al-Saadi, who plans to vote later this month.

He said he expects many expatriates to vote in part because they want to make sure those still in the country are in good hands.

"People need to know this is going to make the future of Iraq," Al-Saadi said. "This is on our shoulders."

To vote outside of Iraq, a person has to have been born before Dec. 31, 1986, and have Iraqi citizenship or qualify for Iraqi citizenship. That means that if a person's father was an Iraqi citizen, he or she can vote.

By law in Iraq, citizenship is traced through the father, not the mother, said Jeremy Copeland, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Out-of-Country Voting Program.

Alshami estimates that about 40 percent of those eligible in the United States will actually vote.

In addition to Detroit, Iraqis will be able to vote in four other metropolitan areas: Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington. In the Metro area, polling places will be established in Dearborn, Southfield and Bloomfield Hills.

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