by Rebecca Romani
(IPS) SAN DIEGO -- It is a moment many Iraqis living in the United States have longed for, and that many thought might never come.
But despite expressing deep satisfaction at having a voice in their homeland's next government, some say the registration process here has not gone quite the way they had hoped.
So far, just 25,946 Iraqis in the entire United States have registered to vote in the polls scheduled to run from Friday to Sunday, even though this country has the third-largest Iraqi exile population in the world after Syria and Iran -- about 90,000, according to the 2000 census.
Worldwide, just over 280,000 expatriate Iraqis have registered to vote.
"We really didn't know what to expect," said Dana Stintson of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is overseeing the vote. "We had a very limited time to prepare."
The IOM, a non-governmental organization headquartered in Geneva with offices in the United States, was contracted by the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission to conduct voting in 14 countries, including the United States.
In Iraq, of course, the problems are much more formidable. According to an analysis by The New York Times Thursday, more than two-thirds of all Iraqis live in districts that have experienced insurgent attacks in the past month.
Security is far less of an issue here. But while many say the process has gone fairly smoothly, they stress that one big reason the registration numbers are so low is location, location, location.
Dr. Shaq Hanish, a San Diego resident and member of the Iraq Democratic Union of America, says the San Diego area alone is home to between 30,000 and 35,000 Iraqis, one of the largest populations of Iraqis in the United States after Detroit and Chicago. Another 10,000-15,000 Iraqis live in the surrounding western states, including Washington State and Arizona.
Yet fewer than 4,000 have signed up at the El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, California, one of only five voting centers in the country.
Tinue Shad, a Kurd from El Cajon near San Diego and a representative of the Patriotic Kurdish Union (PUK), wonders why only one center was set up to serve the entire western United States.
"We did our best and followed all channels possible but they (the IOM) refused. We were ready to cover the expense and provide the manpower, and to provide the polling places as well," Shad told IPS.
Shad cited the recent U.S. elections as an example of what he and other Iraqi activists had hoped for. "U.S. voters have polls within walking distance," he said. "These were really illogical preventions (to registration)."
A look at the list of polling places worldwide shows that Iran had six centers that registered over 60,000 people.
Stintson responded that unlike U.S. elections, the registration process requires aspiring voters to show up in person with documents proving their identity and Iraqi citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate. No provisions have been made for absentee ballots or registration.
Those eligible to vote include persons born after Dec. 31, 1986 to an Iraqi father.
"This is in accordance to the rules and laws of Iraq," Stintson explained. "In Iraq, citizenship is derived through the father."
Once registered, voters are given a sample ballot in Arabic, English or Kurdish, which lists 111 parties vying for seats in the National Assembly. According to Stintson, voters can then inspect the rolls for accuracy. And then they go home to wait. Again.
For Najah Abdelkader, an Iraqi Sunni Arab from San Diego who carpooled with members of her family to go register, the reason for the low turnout is simple: time and distance.
"I met a family there from Arizona," she said, "and they told me they were staying in a hotel until it was time to vote and then they were going home, and I thought that's great for you, but not everyone can do that."
Shad shares Abdelkader's concerns. According to the PUK representative, many Kurds and other Iraqis in the San Diego region work long hours in blue-collar jobs, like gas station attendants and mechanics. Others are small business owners with children. Many are low-income or on public assistance.
"I can barely afford to take a day off once in a while," said Tony, who asked that his real name not be used.
"How would I get a day off to go to El Toro twice?" asked the Iraqi Christian market owner, who keeps his store open seven days a week, as he rang up a small boy's purchases. "It doesn't make sense."
A casual survey of Iraqis around San Diego found that many shared that sentiment.
"I'm in school and I work," said one college student. "I can't go."
Their reasons included a distrust of the process, unfamiliarity with the parties, and low awareness about how to vote.
"We imagined that the IOM would do (informational) campaigns or at least try to meet with community leaders," Hanish said. "Eventually the priests in the Chaldean churches started to talk about the registration and that helped a lot."
Hanish's group chartered five buses to bring people to El Toro. "It's expensive," he said. "We have to do this twice."
He added the fatwa, or religious edict, issued by senior Iraqi Shiite cleric Al Sistani stating that voting was a religious duty had encouraged overseas Shiites to vote.
Other voters said they had learned about the process from Arabic-language stations like Al Arabiya, websites and local news programs.
And for many Iraqis who did register, the experience was exhilarating.
"It's my first chance after 40 years of prohibition," exclaimed Shad, who plans to vote for the Kurdish lists. "This is our greatest chance to prove that we are pro-democratic."
For Abdelkader, registering to vote was a wonderful experience. "While I am a U.S. citizen and am grateful for the fact that this country has respected me and provided me with tremendous opportunities, it's a wonderful chance to participate," she said. "I want to help affect the future for others. I cherish (my opportunity to vote), it's a responsibility."
Her choice? "I am hesitating between the Ittihad al-Chab and the Ittihad al-Iraqiya."
The first is a secular list with a more socialist platform, while the second is the party of Iyyad Al-Allawi, the current interim prime minister of Iraq and currently in favour with many Iraqis in Bahgdad, according to the former Baghdad resident.
"I'll probably vote for Al Iraqiya, because they are secular. I think we need a strong, federal form of government backed by the occupying forces and with a relationship with neighboring countries. We have to be practical, now is not the time for idealism."
"Even though I am a Sunni, I want a secular government!" she said with a twinkle in her eye.
When the polls close Sunday, the ballots will be counted at each voting site and then sent to the IOM offices in Washington, DC. Results are expected about two weeks later.
January 27, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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