Iraqi expatriates rejoice as voting begins

Thousands of Iraqi expatriates around the world began voting in their homeland's national election Friday.

Thousands of Iraqi expatriates around the world have began voting in advance of their homeland's Sunday election, sometimes braving frigid temperatures, travelling for hours and enduring rigorous security checks to take part.

As the first polls opened Friday morning in Australia, inspections with X-ray machines and metal detectors didn't dampen the jubilation of voters, who waved thumbs marked with ink to show they had cast their ballots.

In Scandinavia, some voters wore traditional Iraqi outfits under heavy winter coats as they waited in temperatures of about –30 C outside polling stations.

Voters and election officials in London clapped their hands and sang to mark the start of voting, as one organizer banged on a drum improvised from a water container.

"Iraqis are finally expressing themselves. It is a victory for all the dead that Saddam Hussein killed," said Falastin Saheb, 25, an Iraqi who has lived in Syria for two years and runs a polling station in Damascus.

More than 280,000 expatriates have registered to vote in 14 countries according to the International Organization for Migration, a private group that is co-ordinating the ballot.

Canadians travel long distances to cast vote

In Canada, polling stations opened this morning in three cities – Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto.

Nearly 11,000 of the estimated 25,000 people living in Canada with ties to Iraq have registered to vote.

Many of them faced repeated long journeys to make sure they could take part in the historic election. They had to sign up at the polling stations before registration closed Tuesday, and must visit them again in the next three days to mark their ballots.

Mohamed Mohamed, 22, joined more than 50 other Shia Muslims from the Vancouver area Friday on a bus bound for Calgary's polling station.

"It's a type of jihad for me: I mean it's not something just for God, it's actually something for myself," said Mohamed, who has lived in Canada since he was eight.

"This is an opportunity for me to participate. I should say this is the closest thing for me to get to Iraq."

Hasan al-Hakim, who with his wife drove 14 hours straight from Winnipeg to Calgary to vote, said he's spent hours encouraging relatives in Iraq to cast a ballot after they were threatened.

"It's fighting for life," he said. "That is the future."

Suzan Abdullah and her mother, Zulikha Ahmed, also came to the polling station. They've lived in Calgary for 13 years, after fleeing over Iraqi mountains to avoid being killed during former dictator Saddam Hussein's reign.

"Maybe our country will be safe now and we'll have all our dreams come true and have a party that will lead us to freedom and democracy – just like any other country in the world," Abdullah said, wiping away a tear.

Amira Shmoyel volunteered as an observer at one of Toronto's three polling stations, saying it's important for Iraqis everywhere to vote because violence might cause a low voter turnout inside their homeland.

"We were in prison for so many years and now we are out for freedom."

Some expatriates opt out

The large expatriate vote has angered some Iraqis, who argued that people who no longer live in the country shouldn't have a voice in its future.

Some Iraqi-Canadians agreed and opted out.

"I'm not against the elections," said Riadh Muslih, who was born in Iraq but has lived in Canada for years and doesn't plan to vote.

"I've lived in Canada for so long, I don't think I should have the same rights as Iraqi citizens who live in Iraq."

The expatriate vote comes as Iraqi officials imposed tighter security measures and insurgents stepped up attacks to try to frighten people away from the ballot.