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Expatriate Iraqis in America go to great lengths to vote

NEW CAROLLTON, Md.—Affan Alwan came simply because he could, because there was no longer a dictator who would not allow it.

Thirty years after fleeing his homeland, Alwan cast his first-ever vote in an Iraqi election, placed his ballot in a box and smiled for the camera.

"Saddam Hussein was a butcher, he was a dictator, he was a criminal," said Alwan, 75, who lives in Virginia. "It was hell during his regime, but God smiles on us now."

Alwan was among an estimated 25,000 expatriate Iraqis in America who traveled to unlikely sites—including a Ramada Inn in suburban Maryland, a former home-improvement store in Southgate, Mich., and a converted nightclub on a military base in Irvine, Calif.—to vote in Iraq's first democratic election in 50 years. Iraqis also voted near Nashville, Tenn., and Chicago, Ill.

Their choices for the country's 275-member national assembly will be added to votes from expatriates in 14 other countries as well as millions in Iraq. The Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program said roughly 85 percent of the 280,303 Iraqis registered worldwide turned out to vote.

In the United States, of 240,000 eligible Iraqis, fewer than expected registered to vote in five sites across the country. In Michigan, which has the largest Muslim population outside the Middle East, roughly 9,700 of an estimated 95,000 eligible Iraqis registered. In Maryland, 2,048 of 22,000 eligible registered.

Those who voted said the travel distance deterred many. To vote, Iraqis had to travel once to register, then return again to cast their ballots. Others may have lacked the Iraqi passport or a driver's license with a photo required to register. Some came in groups, on chartered buses and in caravans of cars.

Raad Yacoud drove to Maryland from Raleigh, N.C., with his son, Alex, 22. The chemist fled Iraq in 1982. He asked other Iraqis he knew in the Raleigh area to ride with him. But many were deterred by the 10-hour round trip and the snowstorm that hit the region.

"We tried," said Yacoud, who stood Saturday inside the Maryland voting center, watching roughly 100 people waiting to vote. "All breathing should want to be a part of this."

Voters said they came in part to honor relatives still in Iraq, especially those too fearful to vote, believing the insurgents who threatened to fill the streets with blood.

"My sisters may die today," said Midiva Sadalla, whose two sisters live in Iraq and planned to vote Sunday. Sadalla, 31, fled Iraq in 1996. She lives in Virginia. "If they will vote, so must I."

In Irvine, Calif., voters waving red, white and green Kurdish flags on Sunday replaced Saturday's voters, who mainly carried Iraq's flag. Some said they considered the vote the first step toward securing independence for Kurds.

"This step is good," said Dilkhwaz Ahmed, a San Diego resident who left northern Iraq three years ago. "The next step will be to create an independent country for Kurds."

Back in Maryland, Mohomed Chalabi said his vote was in part to honor the 1,400 American soldiers and the estimated 10,000-30,000 Iraqis killed since the war began in March 2003.

"It was a very spiritual moment to reconcile my emotions for my country and for the American troops who gave their lives," said Chalabi, 49, who flew from New York to Maryland Sunday to vote. The banker, a Shiite, left Iraq 30 years ago. "I honor them by casting my vote."

In the parking lot across the street from the Ramada Inn, some 15 Iraqi men and women headed to their cars after voting. Someone turned on music from a car and the group linked arms, danced and swirled Iraqi flags. Some laughed in celebration. Others cried, they said, for the dead.

"We wish for the dead to see somehow what has happened here today," said Delair Allen, 52, who left Iraq in 1980. Allen is now a Virginia schoolteacher. "We wish for Iraq to be better, for life to be better."

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Jack Chang contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ELECTIONS

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