Iraq Exile Voters Fight Protesters

Iraqi citizen Nassima Barzani is checked by a security guard at a polling station in Sydney, Australia, on Friday. AP

Fistfights broke out at an Australian polling station for Iraqis abroad Saturday when a group of Islamic extremists chanted slogans against those casting ballots, while Iraqis around the world voted for a second day in their homeland's election.

The scuffle was the first report of trouble to mar polling that began a day earlier under tight security, allowing Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries to cast absentee ballots for Iraq's first democratic election in half a century.

Iraqis elsewhere were enthusiastic as they lined up at the ballot boxes, even turning out in the hundreds in the Jordanian town of Zarqa, the hometown of Iraq's most feared terrorist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, election officials said.

"I learned from my parents about past bitter days in my homeland and I voted in the hope of replacing that with a brighter future," said Ahmad Abai, 21, casting his ballot in the Iranian capital, Tehran, where he was born to Iraqi parents.

Some complained of low turnout as election organizers said just under a third of registered Iraqi expatriates cast ballots on Friday, the first of three days of voting. The election in Iraq takes place on Sunday.

"It is a shame, for me it is very depressing," said Hashim Ali of the Iraqi Community Association in Britain, where 30,961 of the estimated 150,000 Iraqis eligible to vote had registered. "These are great days for Iraqi people. I feel let down by the Iraqi community in the U.K.."

The low numbers have been attributed to a shortage of registration and polling places, fears of violence or reprisals from Iraq's violent insurgency and lack of documentation.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, which is conducting the expatriate vote for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, said 84,429 of the 280,303 registered Iraqis cast ballots on Friday, the most recent figures available.

Of those, the United Arab Emirates recorded the highest proportion, with 49 percent of those registered — or 6,154 — voting. In the United States, that figure was 22 percent — or 5,643. Just 183 Iraqis — about 18 percent of those registered — voted in France, the lowest proportion in any of the 14 countries.

The news followed a disappointing registration turnout, with only a quarter of the 1.2 million eligible Iraqis worldwide signing up to vote, despite two extensions of the deadline.

Organizers said they were hopeful that most of those registered would cast ballots by Sunday.

The turnout Saturday was lighter but still "very satisfactory. There's a constant flow of voters heading to the stations," IOM spokeswoman Monica Ellena said in Iran.

Underscoring security concerns, protesters in Australia, identified by ballot organizers as Wahhabis — followers of an austere brand of Sunni Islam suspected of having influence over militants in Iraq — yelled insults at voters.

Some 50 people scuffled after the protesters began taking photographs of the poll, being conducted in a neighborhood dominated by Iraqi Shiites, organizers said, forcing the polling station to close for an hour. No injuries were reported.

"This is scary for the people, taking photos of the voting," said Thair Wali, an Iraqi adviser for the International Organization for Migration.

IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said no other violence had been reported at the international polling centers.

In Norway, eight buses packed with Iraqis left Oslo for polling stations in Goteborg in southern Sweden on Saturday, and 24 more buses were scheduled to make the 200-mile trip later in the day.

Turnout also was brisk in Amman, Jordan, where poles and building walls were plastered with campaign posters.

Thousands of Iraqis turned up at polls in Iran, which had the highest proportion of registered voters, amid tight security.

A third of those registered in Syria voted Friday, and the flow was even higher Saturday, officials said. But many Iraqis turned up without having registered, leading to arguments and disappointment.

"I came from Yemen especially to vote. But I arrived late because I was sick," said Amira Hassan, a native of the Iraqi city of Karbala said at a polling station in a Damascus suburb. "I want to vote. It is my country and I must vote."

Voters will select the 275-seat National Assembly that will appoint a new government for Iraq and draft a permanent constitution. To be eligible, voters must be born in Iraq or have an Iraqi father, and have turned 18 on or before Dec. 31, 2004.

When voting concludes on Sunday, all the overseas counts will be sent in to the operation's headquarters in Amman, which will forward them on to Baghdad. The results will be announced several days later.
  • Chris Hawke

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