Long trip to the ballot box


NEW CARROLLTON - Some rode for hours on buses from New England, and others arrived in luxury sedans from nearby Virginia. Christians and Muslims, new immigrants and longtime U.S. citizens, the bunch was diverse in so many ways but one: the hope for a free Iraq.

Iraqi immigrants living in the northeastern United States arrived by the hundreds at the New Carrollton Ramada Inn yesterday. Security was tight as they registered to vote in their native country's Jan. 30 election. As many as 22,000 Iraqis are expected to vote at the Ramada Inn here.

The much-anticipated election evoked both enthusiasm and skepticism among those registering yesterday, reflecting the complexity of opinions on the future of democracy in war-torn Iraq.

"It is a thrill you cannot describe," said Adil H. Elhaimus, 67, of Arlington, Va., a U.S. citizen for 47 years who left Baghdad for London at age 16 to attend school. "I just want to say thank you to all the American people for making this possible for us; for all the U.S. soldiers that have given their lives so that we can vote."

But not everyone expressed gratitude for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. For some, the election evoked mixed feelings about the relationship between their homeland and the nation they now call home.

"In my opinion, they are doing the same thing - they are killing innocent people every day," said Raad Alfatlwi, 26, of the U.S. military in Iraq. Alfatlwi's family fled Babylon, an ancient city south of Baghdad, after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and settled in Rhode Island.

Despite his dismay at the violence in Iraq, Alfatlwi said he hopes that free elections give legitimacy to the Iraqi government and help the country become safer.

"I just don't like the fighting," he added. "I think Iraq will be free, but unfortunately, it will take a long time."

The election offers Iraqis worldwide an opportunity to choose a representative in the Transitional National Assembly.

Organized by the International Organization for Migration, Iraq's Out-of-Country Voting Program provides 75 polling sites in 14 countries. About 240,000 Iraqis in the United States can register, the group estimates.

In addition to the New Carrollton site, there are polling places in Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., Detroit and Los Angeles.

Voters must register by Sunday and return to the polling places to vote between Jan. 28 and Jan. 30.

In Iraq, the election pits the nation's two largest Muslim sects against each other.

The nation's Sunni minority, which ruled under Saddam Hussein, has pledged to boycott the vote. But Iraqi Kurds and the Shiite majority, the faith of many at the New Carrollton's polling site, see the election as an opportunity to elect new leadership.

Security is a huge concern on election day in Iraq, and it was yesterday in New Carrollton as well. Voters were screened by security guards before entering the hotel's exhibition center, a warehouse-like space decorated with posters in Arabic, Kurdish and English. One depicts a woman holding an Iraqi flag and reads: "Wherever I am: my heart is with my homeland."

For the Fadul family, whose members are scattered from Northern Virginia to Baghdad to Australia, the election is personal. One relative, Rashad Fadul, who lives in Baghdad, is among the 111 choices on the ballot for the Transitional National Assembly.

His brother, Abdul Hamid Fadul, a cardiologist, said he moved his family from Baghdad to Maryland in 1980 because he didn't want his children to grow up under an oppressive regime.

They arrived in Maryland, with $750. Meanwhile, other family members escaped to Saudi Arabia, spending years in refugee camps.

"We left everything behind - cars, a home, everything," said Abdul Hamid Fadul yesterday as he waited in line to register to vote.

His daughter Dalia Fadul, 28, of McLean, Va., doesn't remember leaving Baghdad at age 5, but knows why the decision was vital for her family.

"I am excited about voting in the sense that we will have a say in our country," she said. "Now that he [Saddam Hussein] is gone, we have hope."

It's a peculiar connection, said Raymond Vincent, 70, of Springfield, Va. Some Iraqis who fled decades ago no longer have family in Iraq, are U.S. citizens and have little knowledge about Iraq's political parties.

"There has been some debate about this among Iraqis here: If someone is an American citizen, should they be voting for an assembly in another country?" said Vincent, who left Baghdad in 1958 to study architecture at Catholic University of America in Washington.

"But the feeling is that many of us would have been living there under different circumstances," he said. "So many of us came here to study but were unable to go back."

Vincent, a retired urban planner who earned a degree from Harvard, hopes to return to Iraq to help.

"The election will definitely bring things to a head, one way or another. We hope it is not violent," he said. "I'd love to go back and do something positive to help rebuild the country."

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