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Dancing in the Rain 

U.S. Iraqis visit the polls twice to vote

Thursday, Feb 3 2005
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Photo by Steven MikulanThe process for choosing Iraq’s constituent assembly involved two steps for the 240,000 potential Iraqi voters living in the United States. First, would-be voters had to register between January 17 and 25 at a polling site in one of five cities (Chicago, Detroit, Irvine, Nashville and Washington, D.C.). Then they had to return to these same sites and cast ballots between January 28 and 30. The Out-of-Country Voting Program (OCV) was organized by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), a non-governmental organization that has supervised elections in Bosnia and Afghanistan. The IOM was paid $92 million by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to arrange the vote in 14 countries outside Iraq, with more than $10 million set aside for U.S. operations. There are upwards of 70,000 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans who live west of the Mississippi and who were eligible to vote last weekend at one polling site, the El Toro Marine Base in Irvine. Voting took place in the old officers club, a stuccoed, Reagan-era retreat with red carpeting and George Wright prints of fox hunts lining its walls. During the registration week I spoke to the site’s manager, Salem al Jawad, a Mission Viejo businessman who left Iraq 25 years ago. During our talk Mr. Jawad seemed a bit impatient, although there wasn’t much happening at that moment — now and then couples would trickle in from the parking lot and disappear into the big sand-colored building, and much of his staff were busy eating lunch. Inside, 17 registration stations, each headed by four paid workers drawn from the Los Angeles area, were mostly idle. When I asked how many people had registered so far, Jawad guessed about 100. By the time the El Toro site closed three days later, it had registered only 3,903 voters — 3,660 would return a week later to vote. The low turnout ensured that the OCV, at least in America, would be a sideshow to the elections taking place in Iraq itself. The logistical obstacles to registrants had been obvious from the start. How many people could afford the effort to drive or fly from Oregon, Arizona or beyond to come to El Toro twice? According to national IOM spokesman Jeremy Copeland, there was no way around the double-visit bind: Under international standards for supervised elections, a voting list had to be first collected and verified, and then made public for a week before a vote could take place. No one-stop voting, no mail-in ballots. According to Ahsen Khan, the OCV assistant chief of external relations, bad weather in the East and Midwest also hampered registration. The short time frame was another factor for IOM, which had only 67 days to set up its operations. When I visited the IOM’s training classes at the LAX Radisson, no site had been secured and announced, even though the first day of registration was four days away; IOM didn’t actually take possession of the El Toro site until two days before registration began. While at the Radisson I asked Basam Ridha, who left Iraq in 1982 and was serving as a national trainer and field coordinator for the OCV, about security concerns. “I don’t think it will be an issue here, but maybe in Iraq,” he said with some understatement. “The U.S. government is involved in providing security for us because the hosting country is responsible for security arrangements.” Salem al Jawad later told me the United Nations was responsible for security, although I would learn afterward that the IOM itself is the responsible party. In any event, getting to the El Toro polling site was almost as easy as sitting next to Laura Bush in church. At the base’s entrance a small army of yellow-T-shirted Contemporary Services Corp. employees halted and searched inside and underneath approaching cars. (A Swiss Army knife found in my glove box was temporarily confiscated.) This same firm provides event staffs at rock concerts and the Olympics; the only legal weapons in sight were just up the road and belonged to some bored-looking Irvine cops. After passing the main checkpoint, all visitors went through metal detectors and were wanded before being allowed into the officers club. The first day of the election, last Friday, took place in hammering rain. So few people had registered the week before that the 17 polling stations were consolidated into fewer groups. Registered voters, who had to be at least 18 years old and either born in Iraq or have an Iraqi father, were given a broadsheet ballot and had their index fingers dipped in purple dye. Security inside was tight, and media members had to move about with escorts who were not allowed to discuss details of the election. At one point I sat down near one station after receiving the permission of its supervisor to interview any willing voters. I left after 15 minutes because no one had arrived to vote. Still, those who did make the return journey to El Toro were clearly happy to be there. One man stalked about wearing an Iraqi flag, and occasionally applause or ululations would erupt whenever someone placed their ballot into one of the plastic boxes and then dried their dyed finger on a Kleenex. The voting process itself was remarkably swift — voters were in and out of the stations within a few minutes, even though the ballot, printed in Arabic and Kurdish, listed about 90 slots for coalitions or parties and about 20 for individuals. No one I spoke to seemed disappointed with the process, and were elated to be voting — none had ever cast a democratic ballot in Iraq. “The election is a very happy time for the Iraqi people and for peace and safety,” said Saja Juma, a grandmother from Moreno Valley who seemed on the edge of tears when she stood at the ballot box. I asked what she would tell the insurgents who were trying to shut down the vote in Iraq, which she had left seven years ago. “Stop the bombing,” Juma said. “Why are you disturbing the peace? Why are you killing Americans who are trying to help us?” Al Jamie, an Orange County electrical contractor, was born in Tucson but told me he had many first cousins living in Baghdad. “What I want to do is offer them a way of living free,” he said. “I’m constantly afraid for them because there’s a lot of rampant violence.” And the insurgency? “Right now you have disgruntled people who are probably uneducated and probably poor, and they’re lashing out any way they can. As people with education begin to take control of the country, you’re going to see the country blossom.” As I spoke to people leaving the officers club, a man appeared in the lobby and began shouting, much to the consternation of the IOM staff. It was the man draped in the Iraqi flag. He left the polling center only in stages, shouting at no one in particular as the rain pelted him. He strode past the checkpoints and to the parking lot, beyond the canopied vendors selling kabobs and biryanis. His name was Adil, and he had flown here with a group of men from Seattle. A yellow station-wagon cab was parked nearby, waiting for them to get in for the ride back to the airport, but no one wanted to leave. Instead, they joined arms and danced in the rain, deliriously, waving Adil’s flag as well as a Kurdish banner. Dancing is not something you often see at American polling sites. What did the election represent to Adil, a Nasiriyah native? “It means freedom,” he gasped. I asked about the argument inside the polling station, but Adil shook his head. “No, I can’t talk about this,” he said. “It is heavy.” Then he and his friends got into the cab and drove past the base’s security checkpoints, waving their country’s flag outside the window.

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Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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