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D.C. area Iraqis slow to vote in homeland's elections

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; 2:20 PM

Iraqis living in the Washington area are starting to trickle in to a polling center the Iraqi government has set up for them at the Hilton Arlington hotel in Ballston so that they can vote in their nation's second parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

Turnout at the Arlington site, one of nine set up in eight U.S. cities, has been extremely light so far, with observers from various political parties vastly outnumbering voters. Organizers said they expect most people to show up Saturday or Sunday.

During the last elections, in 2005, more than 300,000 Iraqis cast ballots from overseas -- including nearly 20,000 from the United States and about 2,000 from the Washington area, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The number is likely to rise to about 500,000 this time, according to George Sibley, director of the State Department's Office of Iraq Political Affairs, who noted that even many of the Sunni parties that boycotted the previous elections are urging their followers to vote.

The Washington region's Iraqi community includes the gamut of Iraq's many sectarian and ethnic groups. However, as of early Friday afternoon, the scene at the Arlington poll site had a distinctly Kurdish character. A small truck draped with the flag of the predominantly Kurdish northern provinces -- many of whose residents aspire to independence -- pulled up in front of the hotel and started playing Kurdish ballads on a loudspeaker.

Inside, Qaram Timari, 44, an auto mechanic who has lived in Northern Virginia for the past 18 years, entered a polling booth wearing the dark green sash and wide pants he used to wear as a Kurdish separatist fighter in the mountains of northern Iraq in the early 1980s.

"It's my way of celebrating," he said of his outfit. "I'm feeling so good about this election that it's like the Kurdish New Year on March 20 has come early."

Daria Qadir, 29, a homemaker who arrived at the polling site with her parents, was less conspicuously dressed but no less focused on Kurdish matters.

"I think it's going to be a long time still before we get full independence," she said. "But we are definitely going in the right direction."

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