By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
NEW CAROLLTON, Md., Jan. 28, 2005 -- Iraqi citizens, many
who fled their native
country for the United States to escape Saddam Hussein's
brutality, came here
today to take part in something they never thought they'd
live to see: Iraq's
first free elections in more than six decades.
Shihab Shamma, whose family fled Baghdad 30 years ago, said
dreaming night after night that a coup might some day
topple the brutal
dictator. But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine
that his country might
one day hold national elections that paved the way to
"This is just fantastic," said the University of Maryland
professor, as he left
the polling station in this community just outside
Washington, D.C. The site is
one of five in the United States where Iraqis can cast
their votes through Jan.
30. "It's something I never dreamed possible," Shamma said.
An estimated 25,000 Iraqis registered earlier this week to
vote here and at the
other four polling stations in Chicago; Detroit; Nashville,
Tenn.; and Los
Angeles, according to Roger Bryant, director of the U.S.
office for the Iraq
Out-of-Country Voting Program.
Absentee votes cast in the United States and 13 other
countries in the Middle
East, North America, Europe and Australia will be tallied
and added to those
cast in Iraq on Jan. 30. Iraq's Independent Electoral
Commission will certify
More than 2,000 Iraqis, many of whom Bryant said had
"waited a lifetime" for
this opportunity, were expected to vote at the New
Carrollton site during the
next three days.
"There's a measure of determination" among the voters,
Bryant said. "They
recognize that they're reshaping the future of their
One voter after another, most of whom had seen family
members and friends
killed under the Saddam regime, reiterated their amazement
that they were
getting the opportunity to elect their country's new
Assembly. That 275-member body, in turn, will write Iraq's
constitution and elect a president and two vice presidents.
"I'm shocked. I never thought this would happen," agreed
Rozh Mutabchi, a
native of northern Iraq who arrived with his family in the
United States in
1997, when he was 16, to escape Saddam's persecution.
Eight years later, Mutabchi, a student at George Mason
University in the
Virginia suburbs of Washington, was among about 40 Iraqis
who helped man the
polls at the New Carrollton site. "This makes me feel
really good," he said.
"I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of Iraqis voting. This
is an important
time for Iraq."
The opportunity to vote had a deeply personal meaning for
Hardi Nuri, a Kurd
who escaped northern Iraq in 1996, after Saddam had had
Nuri's brother and
father killed. The Fairfax, Va., resident was so excited
that he arrived at the
polls an hour before they opened and waited in the frigid
cold to ensure he'd
be the first person in the United States to cast his vote.
"It's a day of freedom," Nuri said. "It's a day that means
there's no more
Saddam and a chance for democracy. It's a great day."
As they entered the polling station, each Iraqi dipped an
index finger in
indelible ink to assure no double voting. Votes were
registered on large paper
ballots. Many said they were hopeful Iraqis in their
homeland would turn out in
force on Jan. 30.
Halsho Amin, who traveled from Boston to vote, said he
spoke with his brother
and sister in northern Iraq by phone and urged them to go
to the polls despite
fears of violence. "I told them, 'You have to go no matter
Najat Abdullah, a mechanic living in Manassas, Va., said he
felt assured that
his mother, sister and brother still in northern Iraq would
go to the polls.
"Of course they'll go," he said. "This has been our dream,
and it's the first
step toward our democratic future."
Abdullah said he recognizes the elections won't spell an
immediate end to the
insurgency in Iraq. Recovering from the Saddam regime "will
take time and
patience," he said. "But today is an important step toward
peace and democracy
for Iraq, and I feel great about it."