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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 January, 2005, 20:23 GMT
'We won't forget this day'
By Claire Heald
BBC News

Outside the Iraq election centre in Wembley loudspeaker chants from Islamic anti-election protesters clashed with the cheers of Iraqis, fresh from casting their vote. Feelings were running high.

Inside, the atmosphere was calmer. It was warm, bright and there is a party-like buzz as people prepare to vote.

With friends and family, many in their celebratory dress usually reserved for weddings, they arrived in a steady stream.

Kawa Karim's voting card
Iraqis' fingers are stained with ink to prevent repeat voting

There was kissing, salaams exchanged, handshaking, picnics, tears and ululations as ballot papers went in the box.

Israa al-Jawad and Hasna Kadem work for a women's centre in Cricklewood, north-west London, and were observers at the election.

Both bore the ink-dyed purple stain on a finger - introduced to prevent multiple voting - showing they had cast their ballots.

They are Shias, but said this did not motivate them in their voting - they chose people offering social, health and educational welfare programmes.

Step to peace

"And mostly we are voting for women," smiled Ms al-Jayad. "The women being elected have years of political and professional experience.

"It's a battle - women are still trying to make our presence known in the country."

Amal Masoudi
Amal Masoudi wore her celebration dress

They felt the election is a step on the way to peace and progress and had family voting back in Iraq.

Ms Kadem proudly showed a text message from her 25-year-old nephew in Hilla, south of Baghdad, which he sent from the election centre there.

Also working at the centre was Amal Masoudi, wearing the traditional celebration dress of Basra women.

"It's what we wear when someone is married, when we are happy," she said.

"Because this is the first time, this is Iraq's day. This is the Eid for all the Iraqi people."

Long journeys

Ms Masoudi said she "chose the person who will be best for Iraq and for a democrat. I didn't vote for a party, just for who will raise Iraq from this situation".

With only three voting centres open in the UK some had lengthy journeys across the country.

Shuker Aziz travelled for four hours with friends from his home in Plymouth.

"I'm very happy, we cannot believe this day is here. It is Iraq's future to have an election for everybody."

Looking down the long list of candidates, he said some of the names are familiar, as different groups had come together under the Kurdish banner.

Shuker Aziz
I'm very happy, we cannot believe this day is here
Shuker Aziz

Family back in Hawler, Iraq, are safe and have voted, he said, and later in Plymouth "we will go back and make a big party for everybody, we won't forget this day for the rest of our lives".

Like the majority of Iraqis here, Siham Karem was worried about family back home.

"People who are against the vote targeted them through leaflets delivered to the house.

"They said if they go to the vote they will kill them, but my family say 'even if they kill us we will still go and vote'.

"They think that everything depends on this election. They think their lives will become better and there will be more security for Iraq."

The new administration, she said, would have no excuses for not getting on with the job once it is in power.

Ms Karem hopes one day to return to a safe Iraq, to enjoy the strong family ties she says she misses.

Protest at Wembley
Voters passed an Islamic anti-election protest on the way in

Outside the polling station, the divisions in Iraq were all too evident when the Metropolitan Police cordoned off areas between the protesting Hizb ut-Tahrir group and voters celebrating the day.

Paul Darmoo, one of the Iraqis casting a vote at the Wembley station, said of the protesters: "Some people are scared of freedom, there will always be tension."

In another polling station in Manchester, Kurds turning up to vote and Arab Iraqis protesting against the election clashed.

Of the estimated 150,000 Iraqi exiles eligible to vote in the UK only 30,961 registered.

On Edgware Road in central London cars held up traffic, parading with voters hanging out of the open windows, waving Kurdish flags.

When you see Iraq, it's like Afghanistan. When I saw Baghdad last year I was going to cry
Kawa Karim

Inside Azmir restaurant, Iraqis and Londoners have gathered. Away from the polls there is still much support for the election. But there are also voices of dissent about the election and the occupation.

Akram Jalal, a Kurd from Neasden, would not be photographed. He lowered his voice as he compares the "new dictators" of Iraq to Saddam Hussein. You could not find terrorists under that regime, he stated.

He condemned Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as "the man of George W Bush" and had little faith in the new regime: "From north to south, all of them take money from Americans and they do nothing for Iraq.

"Ninety-nine per cent of people feel that way," he says.

Security fears

He would vote for other candidates: "If they are democratic, make electricity, bring water, make the people happy and peace in the street.

"In Iraq, you can't even take children out to go to school."

His friend agreed but would not give his name.

Dining alongside are four friends who said they were "two Shias, a Christian and an Iraqi".

All have business interests in the rebuilding of Iraq and all support the election. They spoke bitterly of a past when the only option was to vote for Saddam Hussein.

Safa al Khorsan
Safa al Khorsan hopes to be elected

Safa al Khorsan stood as a candidate on one party's list and had a novel approach to democracy - he voted for a different party with similar aims.

"I believe I have to give my vote to not be biased, to be more democratic," he says.

Restaurant manager, Kawa Karim, said he asked his wife in Baghdad not to go and vote because he felt it was not safe.

But he voted in Wembley and could only look to the future.

"Iraq is a rich country," he said. "We should be like Dubai now, or Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

"But when you see Iraq, it's like Afghanistan. When I saw Baghdad last year I was going to cry - what I saw was so terrible.

"Of course we can rebuild. It's not impossible."



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