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Obstacles Plague Absentee Voting For Iraqis in U.S.

Polls and Personnel Lacking Three Weeks Before Election

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page A01

Just three weeks before thousands of Iraqi immigrants in the United States are to cast absentee ballots in their homeland's first democratic national election in more than a generation, efforts to organize the voting here are beset by delays in planning and logistical obstacles.

The team hired by Iraq's electoral commission to run the U.S.-based portion of the election, which officials said may draw up to 240,000 voters, is still scrambling to find polling stations and hire personnel. Its campaign to educate people about how and where to register is just getting off the ground. And with only five designated election centers -- one in the Washington area -- thousands of Iraqis will have to travel hundreds of miles to reach a polling station.

Jeremy Copeland of the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program says his office understands Iraqis' hardships. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Once there, they face the daunting task of choosing from among 111 parties on the ballot, including such groups as the Hashemite Iraqi Royal Gathering, the Unified Iraq Coalition, the List of Independents and the Gathering of Democratic Tribes of Iraq.

Unfamiliar to most first-generation Iraqi immigrants, these names mean even less to the Iraqi Americans who have never been to Iraq but are eligible to vote because their fathers were born there.

"There is no information available [about] how people can vote or where," said Najmaldin Karim of Silver Spring, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute. "I think the people who are trying to do this are totally ignorant or incompetent or both."

Imam Husham Al Husainy, a Shiite cleric and director of the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center in Dearborn, Mich. -- which has one of the largest concentrations of Iraqi immigrants -- said he has gotten hundreds of calls complaining about the election arrangements.

"I have people in every state, they have not been reached, they don't know where to go and what to do," said Al Husainy. "This is the dream of their life to have elections. This is ridiculous. . . . It reminds me of Iraq in Saddam's time."

The Jan. 30 election will determine a 275-seat National Assembly with a one-year mandate to draft a permanent national constitution.

Jeremy Copeland, U.S. chief of external relations of the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, which is organizing the balloting outside Iraq, said that his office is sympathetic about the long distances some Iraqis will have to travel but that in the short time available, it is possible to run only a limited election.

The five centers, which also include Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, were selected, he said, because they have the "densest pockets" of Iraqis.

"We hope that through picking these five cities, we will make it easy for the majority of the Iraqis in the United States to take part in this historic election," said Copeland. "We know that many Iraqis have waited their whole lives to take part in this vote, and so we want them to have their voices heard."

Copeland said the voter education effort has been hampered because "we still don't know all of our polling sites." But he said his organization will be getting information out soon through television, radio and newspaper advertisements. Information is also available at www.iraqocv.org or by calling 800-916-8292.

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 International Organization for Migration, a non-governmental group, was hired by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to run the effort. The commission is spending as much as $92 million on the program, which was launched in November.

Copeland, whose office is based in Washington, gauged that of an estimated 360,000 Iraqis living in the United States, perhaps 240,000 might qualify to vote. The United States has the third-largest Iraqi population behind those in Syria and Jordan.

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