Iraqis take first steps toward democracy as overseas registration beginsLONDON The dawning of Iraq's democracy arrived unhurriedly on Monday - in north London at least.
Under the soaring arch of a new national sports stadium still under construction, in an exhibition hall the size of a large aircraft hangar, several hundred Iraqis living outside their country drifted in to the Wembley Conference and Exhibition Center, registering to cast an overseas ballot in the Jan. 30 election back home.
The numbers seemed low compared with the estimated 250,000 exiled Iraqis living in Britain. About 150,000 of them are eligible to vote, part of an overseas Iraqi electorate of at least one million spread mainly across 14 countries, including the United States. The exiles could have a big say in the election's outcome, potentially swinging the vote toward the southern Shiite majority.
Dwarfed by the steel-roofed exhibition hall, outnumbered by election officials, some Iraqis made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. "We are voting for our country," said Rana Moosa, a 26-year-old woman with joint Iraqi and British citizenship who has spent most of her life in Britain.
Her parents, she said, lived in Basra, in the south, until they were expelled by Saddam Hussein's regime 17 years ago on the grounds that an ancestor had been an Iranian citizen, not an Iraqi.
"I feel like I'm going to have a new country," Moosa said, pushing a stroller carrying her 15-month-old son, Sam. Like others, she said, she was not sure who would be campaigning for her vote. "I don't know who to vote for," she said, pondering the novelty of the process. "There wasn't any vote before. We couldn't vote like this because we had to deal with Saddam."
Indeed, compared to the fear and insecurity stalking the election in violence-ridden areas of central Iraq - not to mention the denial of democracy under Saddam - the start of registration in Wembley offered some moments that would seem unlikely in some parts of the Middle East.
Election agents representing the lists of candidates contesting the 275 Transitional National Assembly seats in Baghdad mingled with exiles running registration stations in advance of the overseas vote on Jan. 28 through Jan. 30. People talked openly to reporters. Television cameras panned over the registration desks.
An election like this, many said, would once have seemed the least likely of options. "This is something we did not expect," said Peshawa Talabany, a Kurdish election official who said he fled Iraq in 1997.
Other people driven out of their country by Saddam's regime met with reporters to talk about matters of faith and politics, trying to play down the profound religious and ethnic differences that divide Iraq.
"I'm talking about the real issues that matter to the Iraqi people - security, jobs, services, health, education," said Hamid al Kifaey, a secular politician from Baghdad visiting London, where he registered to vote. "Some others are talking about race, sect, religion," he acknowledged.
Of course, the slow pace on Monday may pick up later in the week, since exiles have until Jan. 23 to register. "We expect people to come on the second day, the third day," said Mazin al-Jumaily, an election agent. Organizers said they expected a flow of people over the weekend keen to complete the formalities.
In the Netherlands, too, registration got off to a slow start in the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Zwolle. About 30,000 of the 50,000 Iraqis living in the Netherlands are expected to register, organizers said.
The requirements, said Ahmed al-Halfi, the presiding officer of registration station 12, included producing two forms of identification - at least one with a photograph - proving Iraqi nationality.
Once citizenship is proved, he said, would-be voters are given a registration receipt that they must produce to take part in the election.
With three main registration centers in Britain - in London, Manchester and Glasgow - Halfi acknowledged that voters could easily register more than once. However, on election day, all voters will have their right index finger stained with a dye that will not dissolve for about two weeks, which is supposed to make double-voting impossible, Halfi said.
For some, the election is the fulfillment of dreams long harbored in exile. Sami Faraj Ali, a writer and journalist, was a reporter in Iraq until the security police - then headed directly by Saddam - arrested him twice.
On the second occasion, he said, Saddam told him personally: "Sami, this time you are O.K. But next time you will not be alive if you are arrested."
"So I understood the message," Faraj Ali said.
"Thirty-seven years abroad, and this is the first time I am going to vote in my life," Faraj Ali said. "That is our dream. We are going to fulfill it with difficulty, but it's the beginning."
Marlise Simons contributed reporting to this article from Amsterdam.