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Iraq: Expats In Britain Eagerly Registering To Vote In January Elections

Iraqis living in Britain have begun registering to vote in their country's elections for a National Assembly at the end of January. Some 150,000 Iraqis in the United Kingdom are eligible to vote, and the International Organization for Migration, which is organizing Iraqi expatriate voting in 14 countries, hopes that most of them will take part. All potential voters must personally register this week -- between 17 and 23 January -- in polling centers in London, Glasgow, or Manchester, and come back again on one of the polling days. Despite the complication for some of having to travel long distances, registrations have been reportedly swift all three centers. And voters say they are excited about taking part in Iraq's first democratic elections.

London, 20 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Expatriate Iraqis in Britain are excited as they prepare to vote in their country's first elections in the post-Saddam Hussein era. Registration has been taking place since 17 January in London, Manchester, and Glasgow.

Susan Ebraham is a senior registration officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental agency that is overseeing expatriate voting in 14 countries. She is working at the London polling station at the Wembley Conference and Exhibition Center.

"I am very happy. I am here today. It's really wonderful. Yesterday and today we have had about more than 3,000 people, they came. But most of them are working, so we expect huge numbers of people coming at the weekend, in fact. But, we are really very happy for today," Ebraham said.

Ebraham explained that her own family suffered terribly under Hussein. She said the 30 January elections for a transitional National Assembly is "proof that a new chapter is about to start in Iraq's history."

"I personally lost nine members of my family.... So, it's their day, actually," Ebraham said.

Volunteers from Iraqi community organizations in Britain are aiding the registration by informing friends and members about procedures, such as the fact that they can vote on one of three days between 28 and 30 January.

"I would say that the majority of the Iraqi community in Britain is willing and looking forward to go to this registration and election," said Hashem Ali, a spokesman for the Iraqi Community Association in London. "Today, I received a call from people in Hull, which is three hours traveling from London and two hours from Manchester. They were very grateful we sent them some information about the registration. They are very far away but they are very much willing to vote."

Ali added that the Iraqi Community Association understands "the historic importance of the election."

"We are advising people to vote as it is the first time that we have such a free election in our country," Ali said. "This is a must; this is really my first time, too, to be able to cast my vote, and I am very much looking forward to this occasion."
"I personally lost nine members of my family.... So, it's their day, actually."

And potential voters seem enthusiastic, too.

"It is first of all a historical day. I am very happy and pleased to participate in this election. As that's the first time in my life," said Samir Ibrahim, a 45-year-old businessman who lives in London. "I feel I am going to give my voice to whom I like to run our country. I vote for my country Iraq to be a civil country, similar like all world. I am very proud of that day, and a little bit cautious about violence, or let us say terrorist activities, who want to deny us celebrating this day."

Bushara Perto, 55, has been active in Britain's Iraqi community for a number of years.

"I just registered today to the election, and I will take part," Perto said. "I think it is a step toward democracy in Iraq, and we have to do it. I am not sure if the time is very convenient in Iraq. I am afraid that people will not go freely to the polls because of the terrorist actions, but I hope they will take part."

Taleb Hassan has been in exile for over 10 years. He said he is taking the whole family to the polling station "to underline the importance of the day."

"I am really an optimist about the future of Iraq by this start of the election. Most of my friends, most of the people I am in contact with, they want to go to the election boxes," Hassan said. "So, they are really happy, they are willing to elect the people they trust, actually. I think this is the right step we should have taken now."

Not everyone, however, is going to vote. A number of Kurdish expatriates in Britain say they want total Kurdish independence from Iraq, and do not see any point in voting. One of them is 30-year-old Mahabad.

"I just really don't vote. I don't really believe in that, because we are Kurdish, we are not Iraqi, and now they make us again to stay with Iraq," Mahabad said. "We have different tradition, different culture, everything is different, different languages. We had that opportunity, and we pleaded for our independence, but it seems nothing happened."

Ali of the Iraqi Community Association acknowledged that many Kurds are not going to vote. But he said he knows many Kurds who will. And he points out that everyone is free to take part or not.

An estimated 3 million to 4 million Iraqis live abroad. They are expected to constitute an important voting bloc and generally believed to be more secular and pro-Western than Iraqis back home.

The National Assembly will be tasked with writing Iraq's first post-Saddam constitution and choosing a transitional government leading to direct elections by the end of 2005.

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