Despite continuing violence in their home country, expatriate Iraqis have begun signing up for their first democratic poll amid tight security. Hope for a better future is spurring voter registration across Germany.
Signing up for democracy
With just two weeks to go before the historical poll, the first democratic election in half a century, security in Iraq still remains a troubled issue. Violent militant attacks in Iraq continue unabated with at least 16 people, including eight Iraqi soldiers, killed in separate attacks around the country on Monday.
Despite the violence, Iraqi and US officials still insist that the January 30 poll will go ahead as planned.
Registration booths have opened all over the world, including in four German Cities -- Cologne, Berlin, Mannheim and Munich. Even Iraqis living in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland can go to the German election stations. The Cologne stations are expecting registration from up to 18,000 Iraqi voters, also from neighboring countries Belgium and the Netherlands.
Iraqis register in Berlin
Up to one million Iraqis living outside the country are estimated to be eligible to vote; around 56,000 in Germany alone. All Iraqis above the age of 18 who can provide sufficient identification, are eligible to vote. All voters must appear in person and cannot vote by mail.
The voter registration drive will end on Jan. 23 and actual voting will take place between Jan 28-30. The counting of votes too will be done in Germany due to logistical reasons.
Hope for better future
For many Iraqis exiled from their homeland due to oppression under the former leadership, it’s a first chance to get their voices heard.
"We're going to be voting for the first time in our lives. It's a really important event," said one Iraqi couple from Essen, in Germany, who turned up at the makeshift voting booth in Cologne on a former airfield. "We've been waiting for it forever. Hopefully this new government will bring Iraq a good future."
They brushed aside speculation that the elections were a foregone conclusion and that Allawi (Iraqi prime minister) would emerge winner. "Naturally, a lot of strings are being pulled behind the scenes. But I don't think the Americans will dare to meddle with the election outcome," the man said. "Not when there are so many rival parties in the fray."
"Credible and transparent"
The International Organization for Migration, or IOM, has been commissioned by the independent Iraqi election council to set up around 150 registration offices in 14 countries.
Nicole Baldwin, IOM’s chief of external affairs who is presently in Dubai overseeing overseas registration said that the organization was confident that expatriate Iraqis would come out in droves to participate in the poll.
The organization expects registration to pick up in the coming days with entire busloads making their way to the stations.
Baldwin added that her organization's staff are experienced in managing overseas voting for post-conflict countries. "We have lots of experience in dealing with polls and ensuring that things run smoothly," she said. "From an operational point of view, there is no risk of fraud because groups, including the media, are invited to watch every part of the process. So voting will be credible and transparent."
Security a priority
But while all eyes will be trained on whether elections will be free and fair, there remains little doubt that ensuring they remain peaceful will be a greater challenge.
With bloodshed occurring on a daily basis within the
country, many fear that the threat of continued violence will keep people away from the polls in Iraq.
An Iraqi policeman in Baghdad directs traffic in front of a wall covered with posters advertising the landmark elections.
Both the Iraqi interim government and the independent central election commission have announced strong security measures in the country.
"Security will be a priority. Iraqi police and the national guards will make sure the areas are safe," said Farid Ayar of the Central Election Commission. " We hope that everything will be good on the 30th of this month."
Security outside the polling station in Cologne
Unprecedented security measures have also marked the voter registration drive in Germany. Wary of bomb attacks and other attempts to disrupt the voting process, police and armed commandos have barricaded the areas where the polling stations are located. Iraqi nationals wanting to register have to go through metal detectors and exhaustive personal checks before they can enter the stations.
An honor to vote
Ammar Saeed, an election coordinator at the Cologne polling station and an Iraqi national himself said that most Iraqis however, were undeterred by the cumbersome procedures.
"Many Iraqis who I have seen and got to know are very proud to be finally able to vote after 35 years and to make their voice heard," Saeed said. "People have even come here from Holland. I think for them, it's an honor."