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Gary Younge
Trickle of expats celebrate chance to vote

From the highway the huge golden arches of the fast food giant are prominent against Michigan's clear, blue winter sky. Yet the sign saying "Iraqi Elections" in English and Arabic against the backdrop of a snow-capped Holiday Inn is more striking.

The neon signs of the Southgate fun and fitness centre flashed "Vote" with arrows pointing to the shell of a former garden centre where the first of many security guards waved in prospective voters.

With around 120,000 Iraqis, Detroit is the biggest Iraqi city outside of Iraq. Moqtadr Marsawi was the first of them to pass through the metal detectors and into history when he submitted the first ballot to great applause shortly after 7am.

"This is the greatest feeling of my life," said Mr Marsawi, who left Iraq 10 years ago and now works in a grocery store in Detroit. "We want to see democracy in our country ..." His remarks were cut short by a US official, insisting the media were too close to the polling booths. "Just so you know, this is technically an illegal interview," he said.

In the 15 minutes after Mr Marsawi cast his ballot applause would greet each expatriate Iraqi who voted. Afterwards they would emerge to express their delight in their new-found franchise and their concern about the future of the country.

The fact that they could clap for each voter was not just an indication of their joy, but a sign of the meagre numbers who made it to the polls. For as the Americans in Iraq exhorted locals to brave bombs, kidnappers, death threats and snipers to vote tomorrow, less than 10% of Iraqis in Detroit even registered.

Unlike in Iraq, security was not the issue. Initially the war was popular among most Iraqis here but the occupation has soured their support. "I am grateful for the Americans for getting rid of Saddam but no people likes to be occupied," said Sam Zeer, chairman of the American Chaldean federation. Rumours that registering would cost $30, as well as your US citizenship and right to benefits also put others off.

Some insisted that they should not have an influence on the election outcome because they did not have to live with the consequences. "I think it is a sin for us to vote," said Amir Denha, publisher of Chaldean Times, who came to Detroit from Baghdad in 1966. "I'm glad to see democracy but I didn't register and I wouldn't vote because I haven't been there for nearly 40 years. I'm American now and it should be for the Iraqi people to decide."

But most blamed the low voting numbers on logistics. The polling centre in Southgate is difficult to get to by public transport, and is on the other side of the city from where most Iraqis live. Registration took place during a bitter snowstorm and the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. With absentee and mail-in ballots unavailable for fear of fraud, people had to make the journey twice - once to register and once to vote. With only seven polling centres in the country, many of the truly dedicated had to make two trips of up to several hundred miles a time.

"Nobody helped us here," says Sheikh Husham al-Husainy, the Shia head of the Karbalaa Islamic education centre in Dearborn. "The UN, the US government and the Iraqi government planned poorly. People had to come from Kansas and Colorado twice. We have a religious order to vote. The people are willing but not all of them were able to do it."

The elections were of particular importance to the Chaldean community, which comprises just 2% of the population in Iraq and had been relying on a large expat turnout to boost Christian representation.

The American Chaldean federation ran buses from the churches to boost registration. Yesterday, they organised a shuttle bus to ferry the faithful from the churches to the polls. "We are a small minority and now maybe we have a chance to get our voice heard," said Father Emanuel of St Joseph's in Troy, where the bus stopped. "We have to be optimistic."

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