Iraqis abroad cast ballots
Amman - Thousands of Iraqis living abroad lined up at polling stations to cast ballots in their homeland's crucial parliamentary elections on Friday, a constituency Iraq's Sunni Arab minority hope will boost their showing.
Voting was being held in 16 countries across the globe, from neighbouring Syria and Jordan, which are home to the largest Iraqi expatriate communities, to Australia and the United States.
The United Nations refugee agency estimates that around two million Iraqis are living abroad - the majority of whom fled violence following the 2003 US-led invasion.
A large proportion of those - particularly in Jordan and Syria - are Sunni Arabs who fled the fierce wave of sectarian killings at the height of the Iraq war.
That has made their votes a major focus of attention for Sunni leaders in Iraq, who are hoping a solid turnout among their community will counterbalance a strong vote among the Shiite majority for their own religious parties.
Voting abroad will be held for three days, while in Iraq most voters go to the polls on Sunday, choosing a 325-seat legislature. The largest bloc in parliament will try to put together a government to lead Iraq for four key years as US troops withdraw.
In Jordan, a Sunni tribal leader from the western Iraqi province of Anbar, Saad Al-Hardan, warned that after the Americans leave, Iran will try to dominate Iraq - a common fear among Sunnis because of the deep ties between Iraqi Shi'ite parties and Tehran.
"The US occupation will end, but the Iranian one is there to stay. The Iranian influence is significant in parliament and in the government," he said.
Many of those voting said they wanted liberal and secular politicians to take over from Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who many Sunni Muslims accuse of isolating Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's government "hasn't done anything for Iraq", said Samir al-Abdali, 56, who voted with his wife and daughter at a polling centre in Damascus, one of 23 stations in Syria.
He said he voted for Iraqiya, a secular list that includes both Shi'ites and Sunnis. Among its leaders are Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
In Amman, Amal Janabi, a 39-year-old Sunni who worked at Iraq's agriculture ministry for seven years until she fled to Jordan after the invasion, said she too voted for Allawi's Iraqiya.
"He's a secular leader and his list comprises all Iraqi sects," said Janabi, in a Western-style black suit and a conservative Muslim headscarf. "He will be able to cut across the sectarian divide and restore peace and security."
Syria has nearly 800 000 Iraqi refugees, while Jordan's community is estimated as high as 500 000, according to the UNHCR.
'He respects the people'
The head of the Iraqi election commission in Amman, Nehad Abbas, said turnout out on Friday was good. He expects around 180 000 Iraqis in Jordan to cast their ballot.
Voting seemed slower in Lebanon, home to around 50 000 Iraqis.
In the US, Haider al-Khasali, 39, said he would like to see al-Maliki stay on as prime minister because "he is a good man and he respects the people, the law".
"But maybe he need more time because Saddam Hussein's Baath party is still working in Iraq," al-Khasali said after voting in Nashville, Tenn.
The issue of out-of-country voting nearly derailed the election when al-Hashemi vetoed an early version of the election law because he said it did not treat votes by Iraqi expatriates as equal to those within the country. The issue was eventually resolved but highlighted just how important Sunnis view expatriate voting.
On Friday, the final day of campaigning in Baghdad, al-Maliki touted the Iraqi-US security pact requiring all American troops to leave by the end of 2011 his government's "most important achievement".
Also, election commission member Hamdiya al-Hussaini said that 600 000 people had cast their ballots on Thursday in early voting across Iraq. Those who took part included security officials, detainees and medical workers and others who might not be able to get to the polls on Sunday.
The early vote was marred by a string of deadly blasts that killed 17 people, highlighting the fragile nature of the country's security gains.
Despite possible election violence and further turmoil afterward as politicians haggle over a new government, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Friday the US sees no reason for now to adjust its timetable to bring troops home.
"We do not believe there is any basis that we're aware of for not following through on our withdrawal plans," she told reporters in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
'Illegal and illegitimate'
Among the refugee communities in Syria and Lebanon are known to be some prominent tribal sheiks once accused of aiding Iraq's bloody insurgency and members of Saddam's dissolved Baath party.
Zuhair Abdullah, a former Baathist now in Syria, blasted the elections as "illegal and illegitimate because they are conducted under the US occupation." Still, he said he would participate to support what he called "nationalists" over the "sectarians".
Voting also started on Friday in the United States, Canada, Australia, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Britain, Denmark, Holland, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey.