Voting Status In Limbo For Iraqis In Exile

Iraqi refugees in exile wonder whether they will be allowed to vote in Iraq's elections next year as they were in 2005.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

National elections in Iraq are scheduled for this coming March, that's after a lot of debate and controversy. Much of it centered on the question of Iraqi refugees and whether they should be able to vote. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country in the past six years, many of them are Sunni. Their vote could strengthen Sunni politicians in a country dominated by Shiite political parties.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus, Syria, the city that has the largest Iraqi exile community.

(Soundbite of music)

DEBORAH AMOS: They live in Damascus, but Baghdad is home. Omar Fadel(ph) and Abbas al-Amar(ph) share this small apartment because they believe it's still too dangerous to go back. Amar is a painter. He left in 2007 after a death threat. Fadel, a musician, fled to Damascus in 2001 because of trouble with Saddam Hussein's former regime. But he closed his music workshop in Baghdad last year when militants threatened to blow it up. He tunes the oud his father made more than 70 years ago, the old wood creaking as he adjusts the strings.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: They are certainly an odd couple: a Sunni and a Shiite. Back in Iraq, they might've been on different sides of the sectarian divide, but it doesn't matter here. They agree on many things, including that most exiles would vote if given the chance. It's a sign we still count in Iraq, says Abbas Amar.

Mr. ABBAS AL-AMAR (Painter): (Through Translator) Absolutely I would vote. This is my country, and I'll be very happy to go back to my country when there is at least a green light and we can come back home.

AMOS: Omar Fadel is less certain that his community, the Sunnis, will get a fair deal.

Mr. OMAR FADEL (Musician): (Through Translator) If my vote will be counted like others, of course I will take part.

AMOS: Abbas Amar scrolls through dozens of paintings, every one a memory of Baghdad.

Mr. AL-AMAR: (Through Translator) This is the Dance of Joy.

AMOS: The television is tuned to an Iraqi station. They follow the debates in parliament giving them the right to vote. For exiles, Iraq is now a virtual country. Connected by text messages, Web chats and satellite channels, Omar Fadel sometimes crosses the border to maintain his ties.

Mr. FADEL: (Through Translator) Actually, we are in constant contact with them. We go in a discrete way to Baghdad.

(Soundbite of shop)

AMOS: In this Damascus coffee shop, Iraqi exile Ahmed Dulani(ph), who served the old regime, says he plans a campaign to convince exiles to support what he calls the Nationalists. These are the new parties offering a non-sectarian platform to beat the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who represents a predominately Shiite party, because, says Dulani, the prime minister has done nothing to bring the refugees home.

Mr. AHMED DULANI: (Through Translator) The refugees are fed up. They are the same faces. And they need to see something new on the ground.

AMOS: But it's not clear whether Baghdad will allow the exiles to vote. A spokesman at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus said he had no instructions from the government. In 2005, large numbers of exiles did vote in a poll organized by the United Nations. But so far, says Renata Dubini at the U.N. office in Damascus, the Maliki government has made no contact for the U.N.'s help.

Ms. RENATA DUBINI (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Syria): And I don't think now, considering the time frame, it will be feasible for refugees to vote if the February date is maintained.

AMOS: And that will send a signal, says Dubini, especially to Sunni exiles.

Ms. DUBINI: There will be an additional indication that they are not so welcomed home. That's being honest. But as an external observer, this is what I could read in between the lines.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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