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From Md. to L.A., Iraqis Register for Historic Vote

By Hamil R. Harris and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page A10

Abdul Al-Haddad, 69, spent 13 years in an Iraqi prison under Saddam Hussein and now lives in Raleigh, N.C. Diyar Sindi, 24, and Heybet Siso, 20, are Kurds living in Fairfax whose families suffered brutalities under the regime.

The three joined crowds of Iraqis from the Washington area and beyond who eagerly stood in line yesterday outside a hotel in New Carrollton and registered to cast absentee ballots for elections at the end of the month in their homeland. It will be Iraq's first democratic national election in more than a generation.

Abdul Al-Haddad, right, and family drove from Raleigh, N.C., to Maryland to register for the Iraq election and will return in two weeks to cast ballots. (Hamil Harris -- The Washington Post)

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The New Carrollton Ramada Inn and Conference Center, next to the Capital Beltway, is the only designated polling station for Iraqis living in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern region, and election officials said as many as 20,000 people might use the site. There are four other polling centers: in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Nashville. Registration at all polling centers continues until Sunday.

A steady stream of people flowed into the Ramada's cavernous exhibition center yesterday, which was decorated with colorful posters of people holding Iraqi flags. Many who waited patiently to pass security checks had fled repression and violence in Iraq. Some had lost relatives; others had been imprisoned.

The atmosphere at the hotel was festive as people gathered, smiling and talking while swapping stories and business cards.

Despite concerns from Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) that security would be "totally inadequate" at the hotel, police and election officials said registration has proceeded smoothly.

While county officials complained that they were not aware of the hotel's selection as a voting spot until last week, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R), who was taking part in a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration a block away, said federal officials had done a good job with security.

Those registering had to pass through a metal detector to enter. Once inside, individuals were sent to one of 15 stations where they were required to provide evidence that they were Iraqi citizens or former Iraqi citizens who are now U.S. citizens or that the voter's father was born in Iraq. They also had to have turned 18 or older by Dec. 31.

There were no technical glitches and no security problems, according to Jeremy Copeland, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, a nongovernmental group that is running the election outside Iraq.

The organization does not release numbers of registered voters until the next day, he said. But by mid-afternoon, poll workers and others at the hotel said that a few hundred people had received the cream-colored registration receipts. Those who qualify must bring them back to the same polling station to vote between Jan. 28 and 30.

One of those who made the trek yesterday was Al-Haddad, who drove five hours from Raleigh with his two sons and other family members. He served 13 years in prison, he said, because he was falsely accused of being Iranian.

"I feel I am responsible for this, to build a free Iraq country," he said, speaking in Arabic as one of his sons translated.

The vote here is part of an effort to bring the Iraqi election to as many as 1 million eligible voters among an estimated 4 million Iraqi exiles in 14 countries. The election, which will take place Jan. 30 in Iraq, will determine a 275-seat National Assembly with a one-year mandate to draft a permanent national constitution.

The United States has the world's third-largest Iraqi population, behind those in Syria and Jordan, and election officials estimate that as many as 240,000 of the estimated 360,000 Iraqis living in the United States might qualify to vote.

Several Iraqis noted the parallelism of registering to vote on a day celebrating one of America's most famous civil rights leaders.

"We had no freedom there," said Siso, one of many Kurds signing up. "That is why we came to America. This is very ironic; we get to share this day with Martin Luther King."

Sindi, who grew up in Iraq, said the voting is "an example of freedom" for the world.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company