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Iraqis brave ice storm to cast vote

By Ed Brock

Saturday's ice storm wasn't enough to keep Sardar Sheikha from driving more than 200 miles to cast his vote in Iraq's first election since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.

"It was bad snow and ice," said Sheikha, an Iraqi Kurd now living in Jonesboro. "It took me six hours to get there."

But despite the weather, Sheikha was far from the only expatriate Iraqi making his way to the five U.S. cities with polling places, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. More than 5,000 Iraqis voted on Friday, and organizers with the International Organization for Migration expected larger crowds over the weekend.

In Nashville, which has the largest Kurdish community in the nation, about 20 Kurds celebrated by dancing and waving flags in the rain. The men and women broke into a line dance called the badine with traditional music blaring from a car's speakers.

Sheikha, his wife Naema and another Kurdish couple from the area were in the crowd on Saturday. Every Kurd in Georgia probably went to vote, Sheikha said, and he was glad to hear that voter turnout in Iraq itself was also higher than expected.

"I'm so glad the people vote like this," Sheikha said. "I believe it will be a free country after this."

At the Nashville polling place children waved flags to signify Kurdistan, while several teenage boys wore Iraqi soccer jerseys and had their faces painted like the national flag.

"It is celebration because for the first time they taste the freedom of this country," said George Khamou, of Little Rock, Ark., who watched the dancers. "This is really a big celebration for all of us here - the Kurdish, the Arabs, the Christians, everybody. All we say now is all of us are Iraqis, because we are all the same."

Voters had their right index finger dipped in ink as a safeguard against voting fraud, then dropped paper ballots into boxes.

By Sunday 24,335 expatriates had voted in the United States, 3,744 of them at the Nashville center. That turnout was 95.3 percent of the registered voters for the Nashville center and nationwide 93.8 percent of the registrants turned out to vote.

Voter turnout was in the mid to high 90 percent for all of the nations in which the IOM held elections. In Iraq the turnout was still unknown, but some feared that participation particularly by Sunni Muslims, the group that most supports the insurgency, was much lower than any other group.

Iraq's interim president warned that fears about security there would prompt many to stay home rather than vote in the nation's first election in half a century. Mortar rounds landed at least one polling site in the region south of Baghdad overnight.

In Australia, fistfights broke out at a polling station Saturday when a group of Islamic extremists chanted slogans against those casting ballots.

Melavan Pasha of Jonesboro went to cast his ballot on Sunday, the last day for the vote.

"I went after that crazy weather Saturday," Pasha said.

Once he arrived it only took Pasha 10 minutes to vote for the Kurdish party, one of over 100 "political entities" on the ballot.

"The two Kurdish parties ran under one ticket," Pasha said. "They decided it would be better to unite for the election."

The winners of the election will go on to form the Iraq Transitional National Assembly. The Assembly will be responsible for drafting Iraq's permanent constitution, electing a president and two deputy presidents and to legislate and exercise oversight over the executive authority.

Pasha said he doesn't have a pick so far for the position of president, though he's not unopposed to the possibility that Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi might get the post.

"I think the people need a guy like that," Pasha said. "He's a tough guy as far as the insurgency."

Sheikha said he'd like to see a Kurd get appointed.

"But anybody's better than Saddam," Sheikha said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.