IRVINE, California — No one really knew what to expect from the Iraqi elections this weekend. For months, there had been talk of boycotts, threats of violence from the insurgency, and it seemed possible that the sheer number of candidates running for office might render the ballot unintelligible. But for many of the Iraqi citizens who flocked to the voting center in southern California, those concerns took a back seat to the determination to make their voices heard.
The polls opened first in the 14 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States) that offered voting to Iraqi expatriates. Beginning on Saturday, Iraqi-Americans from all over the western United States descended on a former U.S. military base in southern California (one of five such locations in the country), where they were able to cast ballots in Iraq's out-of-country voter program. Outside the base, a line of cars stretched out of sight as bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards searched each vehicle. But instead of being irritated by the long wait, many voters began chatting with the people in the cars around them.
Ray Essa and Dimi Vaulgaraais were two such potential voters who found the wait worth their while. The two Assyrian-Iraqis had driven six hours from Modesto, California, and they'd also made the 350-mile journey just a week earlier to register with the voting board. All of this would be worthwhile to them, they said, if one Assyrian-Iraqi were elected to represent their people in parliament — something that had never occurred in their lifetimes.
This optimism spilled over into the voting area of the base, where voters had turned a large parking lot into a bazaar of sorts. At any given moment, several hundred voters and their families would be out of their cars and buses, moving through the makeshift merchant stands and free-form meetings. Families who had come from several states away relaxed with picnic lunches while those who had just voted in the nearby polling center joined in ad-hoc chants, singing and marches around the lot.
Ladin Aljauiri, who was born and raised in Basra, Iraq, and now makes his home in Phoenix, attempted to explain the enthusiasm. Then, gesturing to the hundreds of people in the parking lot, he explained, "Here we have Assyrian, Kurdish, Turks, everyone — all united for this election, and they love it." But even he was unsure of what could be expected when the polls opened later that day in Iraq. "God bless the families in Iraq," he said. "Here people are happy and safe. There, people are scared."
And that was just how it looked later that evening as news channels began to broadcast their live coverage of the election from Iraq. As the polls opened, the news networks switched from one empty polling place to another.
But as the Sunday-morning papers hit doorsteps across America the next morning, a different story emerged: There were images of long lines of people waiting to get into polling places in Iraq; images of elderly Iraqi women brandishing purple-stained index fingers (the mark that they had voted); stories about a turnout larger than expected, perhaps more than 60 percent.
And more than 265,000 citizens voted in the out-of-country elections, according to Bloomberg.
"All of the Iraqi people have hopes for this election," Aljauiri said on Saturday afternoon. "This is our first step."