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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Participants enthusiastic at busy Michigan polls

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Abas Al-Gazali, left, and his 75-year-old father, Musa, campaign outside the Southgate, Mich., polls for Iraqi expatriates. Abas Al-Gazali, left, and his 75-year-old father, Musa, campaign outside the Southgate, Mich., polls for Iraqi expatriates.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

SOUTHGATE, Mich. - Abas Al-Gazali hoisted a picture of three Shiite Muslim men yesterday as he tried to convince Iraqi expatriates arriving at this suburban Detroit voting site to mark their ballots for the "good people" of his political party in Iraq's historic election.

"This group is very good," said Mr. Al-Gazali, 29, of nearby Dearborn, pointing to the faces of the leaders of Slate 169. "It is for freedom, for safety. Everybody likes them and George Bush will listen to them."

Mr. Al-Gazali and his father, Musa, 75, campaigned until the final moments of the out-of-country voting program, hours after the polls closed in Iraq.

In Southgate, security guards checked voters as they entered an abandoned store transformed into an election site.

In the packed parking lot outside, it was democracy in action as political parties made their final attempts to swing votes.

Mr. Al-Gazali stood elbow-to-elbow with supporters of Slates 204 and 324 - two Assyrian Chaldean-backed political entities vying for votes. Southeastern Michigan is the home of more than 100,000 Assyrian Chaldeans, an ancient Christian sect that has been largely persecuted in Iraq.

"They are Chaldean and we are Chaldean," said Lawrence Mansour, 16 of Utica, Mich., as he campaigned outside for Slate 204 and explained why voters should support his group over 324. "They always think united and we are united, but we need to fight for ourselves.

"A lot of our rights have been taken away," he said.

To Nuha Shallal, 19, of Sterling Heights, who campaigned for Slate 324, it was politics as usual. She dismissed charges that her group was Communist.

"This is an election and people say things about each other," she said. "I don't see how Communist could be Democratic. We all have our beliefs, but we are more excited to vote. We are making them understand what we do."

Out-of-country voting was available in 14 countries to Iraqi natives or people whose fathers were Iraqi nationals. About 280,000 people worldwide signed up to participate and organizers projected a large majority of registered voters would turn out and vote.

In Southgate, about 9,700 people registered to vote and 8,975 - 92 percent - cast a ballot during the first two days of the election. Voters were selecting political entities, which would make up the nation's 275-member Transitional National Assembly.

Abdulrasul Al-Hayder of Detroit, the manager of the Southgate polling center, said everything ran smoothly at the center and most voters were enthusiastic - especially after the completion of voting in Iraq.

"People are so happy, so excited after the encouraging news from Iraq," Mr. Al-Hayder said.

Early news reports said a high percentage of registered voters in Iraq turned out and many casualties were reported.

However, election day ended in Iraq without the large-scale violence and chaos that was feared.

"Every casualty causes us to feel sorry and sad," Mr. Al-Hayder said. "But compared with other days, this is a good day."

Security guards remained vigilant in Southgate throughout the day, as thousands of voters arrived at the polls.

Every person - including dozens of members of the media - was required to go through metal detectors before entering the voting area.

There were few problems at the polling site, said Ned Timmons, the director of security for LSS Consulting Inc., which monitored the Southgate site.

"We had a couple tense moments between the factions, but it's all calmed down," Mr. Timmons said. "We are getting them in and getting them voting."

Ramzi Marogy of Windsor, Ontario, ushered his twin 4-year-old sons, Rami and Ryan, through the metal detectors and didn't mind waiting in the security line to reach the polls.

"We appreciate that," he said. "They are doing their jobs to keep us safe."

Mr. Marogy said he hoped to one day explain to his sons the significance of this election.

"We are doing this for our people, and when they grow older, they will get to use the Canadian way or the American way of doing this," he said.

Inside, Iraqi voters regularly broke into impromptu celebrations and dancing.

At one point, dozens of people gathered around Iyoub Alassady, a well-known Iraqi poet and writer, as he led a crowd in song and cheers after voting.

Six-year-old Murtada Al-Thihabawy was wrapped in an Iraqi flag as members of his family cast their ballots.

His brother, Mohammed Al-Thihabawy, 10, said their father is in Iraq but plans to return to the United States soon.

"He said it is a very nice place to live," Mohammed said. "I wish Iraq could be a safe place to live and I go back and live there."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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