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Last Updated: Friday, 28 January, 2005, 17:08 GMT
Expatriate Iraqis head to polls
Iraqi women queue outside a polling station in Tehran, Iran
Only about 15% of Iraqis living in Australia have registered to vote
Thousands of expatriate Iraqis worldwide have been casting their votes in the country's first democratic elections in half a century.

Almost a quarter of the 1.2 million Iraqis eligible to vote have registered to take part in the poll.

Amid high security around polling stations, Iraqis are gathering to cast their ballot, many with their families.

The vote runs from Friday to Sunday in 14 countries from Australia to the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Polling stations have opened in the US cities of Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Nashville.

'Exciting day'

The BBC's Jannat Jalil in Washington says many were moved by the symbolism of being able to cast a free vote for the first time.

In Australia, Iraqis living in the Sydney area were first to cast their votes, passing through metal detectors to enter the polling station.

"We have been looking forward to this time for the last 50 years, actually, so it is a very exciting day for Iraq citizens," Shimon Haddad, told French news agency AFP.

IRAQ'S EXPAT VOTERS
Australia: 11,806
Canada: 10,957
Denmark: 12,983
France: 1,041
Germany: 26,416
Iran: 60,908
Jordan: 20,166
Netherlands:14,725
Sweden: 31,045
Syria: 16,581
Turkey: 4,187
UAE: 12,581
UK: 30,961
US: 25,946

Afterwards, Iraqis danced in the streets and showed off their blue-stained fingers, evidence of having cast their vote.

"When I look at the ink on my finger - this is a mark of freedom," Kassim Abood told Reuters news agency.

Yet only 15% - some 12,000 - of the 80,000 eligible Iraqis in Australia registered to vote, many citing fears of reprisals for their families and relatives back home.

Others have complained of the limited number of polling stations and the process of having to register ahead of the vote.

Low turnout has dogged election organisers, who have twice extended the deadline for registering in an attempt to increase the number of voters.

A total of 280,303 expatriates have registered to vote worldwide - less than a quarter of the 1.2 million eligible.

But an official from the International Organisation for Migration, in charge of organising the poll, said the figures were actually better than expected.

"Worldwide, one in four has registered," Peter Erben said, "This is far more than most other democracies can boast."

Tight security

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, the headquarters of the international voting effort, some 20,000 exiled Iraqis have registered.

An Iraqi man is watched by his wife and family as he dips his finger in ink while preparing to vote in a polling stations in suburban Melbourne

Armed insurgents have warned Iraqis to boycott the poll, and nervous officials in both Jordan and Syria have set up police roadblocks around polling stations.

In Iran, the BBC's Frances Harrison says organisers described bus-loads of Iraqis arriving in the capital from the north of the country.

Many told her they hoped to return to Iraq - where voting begins on Sunday - once the security situation had improved.

In Sweden - home to one of the largest communities of expatriate Iraqis - voters wearing traditional Iraqi costumes beneath thick winter coats braved freezing temperatures.

And in the UK, voters arrived early at polling stations in London, saying they had waited long enough for this moment to arrive.

"I'm absolutely delighted. This is the first time I'm practising my free will to choose the people who I trust," one woman said.

You can watch John Simpson's Panorama programme on the state of Iraq on BBC One on Sunday 30 January at 2215 GMT and on BBC World on Saturday 5 February at 0810, 1210 and 2210 GMT.




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Extra security measures are being taken for the poll



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