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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Blogs, email inform local Iraqis

Blogs, email inform local Iraqis
Dec. 14, 2005. 02:33 PM

For out-of-country Iraqis who began casting votes for the leaders who will form Iraq's new 275-member parliament, there was no shortage of choice at the polls yesterday.

Casting a vote — for just one of the 300 options marked on the four-page, small-print ballot — was a weighty task. Ahmed Alatwani spent the entire 90-minute drive to the Mississauga voting station mulling over his options. Then, to double check the candidate he settled on, he called his brother for reassurance.

It helped that the brother lives in Iraq.

Alatwani, who lives in Buffalo but travelled to Mississauga to vote, has been relying on his homeland connections for months to help him learn about the identities and alignments of the candidates he had to choose from. North American coverage of the election race, he said, hasn't included enough of the details he needed to cast an informed vote. That sentiment is widespread among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis abroad who are eligible to vote.

"The world, it's like a small village now," Brindar Doski, a Kurdish leader from London, Ont., said of his community's reliance on the Internet. "They tell us what's on (Iraqi) TV, answer questions and tell us what (candidates) are doing at home," he said.

Ahmed Al-Hayderi, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq in Canada, said there has been a surge in election-related bloggers, email lists and websites since Iraq's interim government was elected last January.

"There's been lots of communication to Iraq trying to get information about the candidates," he said. "The Web is rich with information about the candidates. There are a lot of Iraqis that go back and forth," he said, adding: "For the past year, there's not one gathering that the issue of parties and what they stand for, policies and mandates ... aren't the centre of discussion."

Although polling stations in Iraq won't open until tomorrow, 557 out-of-country voting stations opened yesterday and will stay open through tomorrow in 15 nations, including Canada, the United States, Australia, United Arab Emirates and Syria.

In the U.S., there were eight polling stations for an estimated 240,000 Iraqi-Americans. In Canada, polls opened in Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa and Mississauga for an estimated 30,000 eligible voters.

Phones began ringing early at the Mississauga polling station at 6811 Century Ave. Callers, including many from upstate New York, were anxious to know when they could begin casting their votes. According to election rules, those unable to get to a polling station in their country of residence could travel elsewhere to vote, as long as they produced proper documentation. Voting is limited to citizens of Iraq and people whose fathers are citizens of Iraq.

For Alatwani, who has lived in the U.S. for 10 years, it was easier to cross the border to Canada than travel to Michigan or Washington, D.C., to vote. Holding his 11-month-old daughter in his arms and admiring his purple-stained, right index finger — done by polling officials to ensure voters cast ballots only once — he said he thinks expatriates who vote can help end violence in Iraq if they vote for "the one who will protect the poor people, avenge the terrorists, avenge all the people who hurt us."

Turnout at Mississauga picked up throughout the day and officials said they expect the station to get busier as the voting deadline nears. Al-Hayderi said that overall, officials are predicting higher voter turnout than last January, when only one-quarter of eligible Iraqis cast ballots abroad. "There's a momentum building," Al-Hayderi said.

Al-Hayderi also said officials have ironed out the registration and voting process abroad in hopes of reducing the complexity.

Voters can now register and vote on the same day, rather than making two trips to the polling station as they had to do last election. Also, a new office has been set up in Montreal to accommodate voters from Eastern Canada.

In Mississauga, to show solidarity with her family members back in Iraq, Suhaila Youkhana arrived at the polling station wearing traditional dress and clutching a see-through plastic bag packed with an Iraqi flag and a red I.D. booklet stamped with a Republic of Iraq logo. Smiling and proud, the Hamilton resident marched past a police dog, metal detectors and a line of yellow tape that served to separate the voting area from the part of the building where people were allowed to discuss politics and party preferences.

After casting her vote, Youkhana left beaming.

"This is the time for my country," she said. "It's very hard back there. They're bombing all the time, killing innocent people."

Outside the polling station, in a suburban office park, security was tight. Police cruisers blocked off one entrance to the building and carefully monitored the flow of school buses and other traffic ferrying voters to the other.

Al-Hayderi said the high security and strict rules, which even prohibited Youkhana from taking her flag out of the bag, were simply preventive measures.

The Mississauga polling station will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow.

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