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Interest in voting runs low among Iraqis outside the country

WASHINGTON—Iraqis outside Iraq begin voting Friday in that country's first democratic elections, but far fewer Iraqis are expected to vote in the United States than organizers had hoped.

About 10 percent of eligible voters in the United States signed up to vote during the nine-day registration period—25,946 of the estimated 240,000 eligible, according to the Washington officer of the Iraq-Out-of-Country Voting Program.

The numbers were higher elsewhere—13 percent in France, 16 percent in Australia, 30 percent in Canada and 50 percent in Denmark, the program said.

Confusion about voter eligibility requirements and long travel distances for registration and voting may have discouraged many, officials said. The balloting will be held through Sunday at centers in the metropolitan areas of Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Nashville, Tenn. Thirteen other countries also are serving as voting sites.

"I think many people figure that given the inconvenience it's just not worth it," said Mike Amitay, the director of the Washington Kurdish Institute. "That Iraqis have to travel sometimes hundreds of miles twice is completely inexcusable."

Monique De Groot, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, which organized the voting program, defended the locations of the voting sites, saying that more than 60 percent of Iraqis in the United States lived in or very close to the five cities.

"The registration effort was a baseline exercise to see how many people were interested in voting," De Groot said. "It was by no means believed that 100 percent would register."

Registration was low at all the U.S. sites.

At the California location at Irvine, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, only 3,903 Iraqis registered.

Officials had estimated that roughly 22,000 Iraqis would register and vote at the Washington-area site at New Carrollton, Md. But only 2,048 did. A weekend snowstorm in the East could have affected the registration, officials said.

Even in the Detroit area, which has the largest population of Iraqi immigrants in the United States, registration was low—roughly 9,700 of an estimated 95,000 eligible Iraqis registered in a Detroit suburb called Southgate.

Some complained about the voting location 40 miles away from roughly 120,000 Chaldean, or Christian, Iraqis, most of whom live in Dearborn, Mich. The polling place was closer to about 15,000 Shiite Muslims in the area.

Officials said they didn't track whether voters were Christian or Shiite. Chaldeans make up roughly 5 percent of Iraq's population.

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(Bailey reports for the Detroit Free Press.)

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

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050126 Iraqi exile vote, 20050117 USIRAQ VOTING

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