Iraqis Living In The U.S. Prepare To Cast Their Vote

Iraq's parliamentary elections take place this weekend, and Iraqis in the United States are not missing their chance to vote. Eight cities have set up polling stations for Iraqis living in those states. Tell Me More host Michel Martin speaks with Andy Shallal, an Iraqi business man in Washington, D.C., and Ara Alan, an Iraqi youth activist in Atlanta, about where they'll be voting this weekend.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we will have another perspective on a critical milestone in the nations history. Washington, D.C. began offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples this week, the sixth jurisdiction to do so. We heard from the first couple in line to get a license.

Today, we will hear from one of the countrys most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage about how he is responding to these developments. Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. is with us. Thats just ahead.

But first, we turn to a milestone in Iraq. Parliamentary elections in Iraq began yesterday and continue through this weekend. The vote will determine not only which political parties will gain or lose power but also who will become the next prime minister. The election comes at a crucial time for Iraq. Its the first nationwide elections since U.S. troops withdrew from major urban areas last year, the first step toward an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Some 18 million Iraqis are expected to cast their ballots within the countrys borders. But meanwhile, another two million will cast their votes from abroad. And that includes thousands of Iraqis currently living in the U.S. Polling stations have been set up in eight cities around the U.S., including Chicago, Phoenix and just outside Washington, D.C. And voting here begins today.

So we decided to call two Iraqis living in the U.S., who will be going to cast their votes this weekend. Andy Shallal is a businessman here in Washington, D.C. and Ara Alan is an Iraqi youth activist in Atlanta. And I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. ARA ALAN (Iraqi Youth Activist): Thank you. Good morning, Michel.

Mr. ANDY SHALLAL (Owner, Busboys and Poets): Its wonderful to be here.

MARTIN: Oh, Andy, its nice to talk to you again. Youre well known as a businessman in the Washington, D.C. area. You own a number of popular gathering places called Busboys and Poets. And I understand that youre in a polling place in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington where youll be casting your vote. Whats it like there?

Mr. SHALLAL: Well, its a little quiet, I mean, with the exception of lot of media, a lot of other people sort of officials. Theres not a lot of people voting. It looks like in a very slow trickle of people.

MARTIN: What was the process you had to go through to get there to figure out where to go? I mean, do you have to show ID? That kind of thing.

Mr. SHALLAL: Well, its in a hotel. Its in a Hilton right outside of Washington, D.C. in Arlington, Virginia. And you walk in, you get patted down to make sure that, you know, youre not bringing anything illegal inside. And then you go upstairs, you have to show two forms of ID. And then you proceed forward through a gauntlet of media, and then you go inside where the polling place is. They hand you this very large thick ballot that you have to go through and be able to figure out all the information that you need to figure out.

I did not feel comfortable voting today, because when I received this big, giant piece of information, I wanted to have a chance to be able to spend time to look at it. And they said itll take about two hours, you know, for me to really look through it and be able to understand it. And I said I dont have time right now. So Im going to come back again tomorrow to be able to spend more time and be able to make a proper assessment of who I would be able to vote for.

MARTIN: And you can do that? You can take the materials with you?

Mr. SHALLAL: No, you can't.

MARTIN: You can't.

Mr. SHALLAL: I was not allowed to be - to take the material with me.

MARTIN: Okay. I see. Well, you had - so you had to go through a gauntlet of media. But, you know, at U.S. polling stations, you have to go through a gauntlet of candidates waving stuff at you. So...

Mr. SHALLAL: Right.

MARTIN: Is it similar?

Mr. SHALLAL: But the problem here is the lack of information. I mean, I asked, I said, do you have the information of the candidates? Do you have anything? They said no. Ive searched online for the past four or five days trying to find information on many of these candidates. And if you really dig deep, you can find the things on the different candidates, but there isnt, like, sample ballot, for example, to be able to look at.

MARTIN: I see. Ara, are you having the same experience there? Is it hard for you to figure out who you want to vote for and stuff like that?

Mr. ALAN: I think I agree with Andy. It is difficult, because this is the first time. Its an open direct election and we can actually choose the candidates. In the past, we would just choose for the list that you would vote for. And the list could have consisted of alliance of different political groups. But now, you can choose a list, and then actually select the candidates that you want based on the city that youre from.

So its broken down more, so there is lot more details to attend. You have to do your homework a lot to actually know who to vote for. And like Andy said, sometimes its just not possible to have the time to listen to all these different candidates from different lists and to actually make a selection.

MARTIN: Now youve been, as I understand, youre helping to gather a group to travel to Nashville to vote. How is that going?

Mr. ALAN: Thats going well. I am with the Kurdish Cultural Center in Atlanta, and were gathering most of the Kurds in Atlanta. And were going to head up to Nashville. We are very excited about it, but Nashville is kind of far from us. Its about - it takes us four and a half hour to get there. So we found the best way to do it is to carpool. And this way, we can make sure that most people come out to actually go to vote. Weve done this in the past elections as well.

MARTIN: And, you know, that of course the Kurds have, theres, you know, theres been a - whats the word Im looking for - a complicated or fraught relationship with kind of the broader Iraqi government. So, Ara, do you feel that the Kurds are perhaps more motivated to vote than other people because of that? Or do you have any sense of that?

Mr. ALAN: Certainly, yes. Theres - we find this election that theres a risk to it for us as well. I mean, theres a lot of key issues that we want to make sure that get passed through the Iraqi election, like the follow up on the Article 140 which determines the fate of Kirkuk.

And so the Kurds, we are very concerned about this issue. And that - one of the major reasons most of the people here says were going to go vote for Kirkuk, meaning that we want to have Kurdish parliament members in Iraqi parliament that will make sure that Article 140 gets implemented.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Okay, if youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Ara Alan and Andy Shallal. Were talking about elections in Iraq, and they are living in the U.S. and are eligible to vote from there.

Andy, what about you? Why are you so motivated to vote? Whats at stake for you in this election?

Mr. SHALLAL: Well, Im a person that was born in Iraq. I want it to succeed. I want it to move forward, and I want it to become more and more democratic. So this (technical difficulty)...

MARTIN: Were having a little trouble hearing you, Andy, so Im going to ask you if you could move to a different sort of location.

Mr. SHALLAL: Sure.

MARTIN: Hows that going? Okay. Try again. Better. Okay.

Mr. SHALLAL: The, you know, this is more of an exercise of democracy. Id like see Iraq move into a democratic process. I think its heading in that direction. I think the bar has been set. Its pretty low. And I understand that. This is a sort of the beginning stages of a democratic process and thats not a bad thing.

So its all about process right now more than really whos being voted for. A lot of these people have been faces that Iraqis are very familiar with. You know, many of them are not very savory, but theres a lot of complications in the process of voting and people need to learn how to do that in order for them to be represented in government.

MARTIN: I dont think - I think its fair to say that there have been, you know, religious divisions or sometimes ethnic divisions, Andy, in, you know, in Iraq that has sometimes determined peoples perspective on these issues. But as we know from other places where they have these divisions seemed very important in the home country, sometimes when people live elsewhere, they seem less important.

And I wanted to ask, Andy, if - to the degree you feel comfortable, I just wonder, you know, what is the frame that you use for you to make the decision? And I dont know, is it your not just where you lived, geographically, where youre from. Whats the most, you know...

Mr. SHALLAL: I think theres a lot of party affiliations, so you have to actually vote for a party in order for you to vote for the candidate. You can't just vote for the candidate. If you just vote for the candidate, youre disqualified. The ballot is disqualified. So you have to pick a party and then you pick the candidate that would fall under that party.

There are three basic sort of frameworks. Theres sort of the Western-backed kind of Allawi type, who is more secular. And there is like the nationalists like Maliki, who is already in government right now. And theres, of course, then the religious extremists. And, you know, Ahmed Chalabi is involved in that group. So these sort of - theres a basic framework of what were working with here of who we can elect to the parties.

MARTIN: Do you feel, Andy, any responsibility for trying to get other Iraqis living in the U.S. to participate in the process?

Mr. SHALLAL: I think the process is really important. I think, you know, voting - whether its really representative or not, and, you know, Im sure theres going to be a whole bunch of, you know, fraud issues and all the things that will come up - I think really do get people engaged and focused on moving the country forward. And if we are all interested in doing that, then I think its a useful exercise at this point, and also a way to get the, you know, the Americans out, because, I mean, this is the beginning of the process of having Iraq have its sovereignty back.

Right now, it's, you know, there's at least a hundred thousand American troops along with about equal number of contractors still there. You know, supposedly by August of 2011, all these people are supposed to go out. And so unless Iraq has a sovereign sort of presence, its going to be much more difficult for them to adhere to that kind of timeline.

MARTIN: And, Ara, same question to you. I understand that the issues of being Kurdish and the issues of the people - of Kurds in Iraq are paramount for you. But are there other issues that youre prioritizing and figuring out whom to vote for?

Mr. ALAN: Yeah, certainly. I think, that we - the Iraq election is taking place now. Yes, we have a lot more parties from the previous elections, but its still along the religious and ethnic lines. We dont have a uniting party thats for all Iraqis that all the different groups can find themselves in it comfortably. So therefore, we - people are voting for different political parties, but theyre still voting within their own either ethnic or religious groups. And, I think, for the Kurds, its the same way, that we have different choices, as well, but in a same time, were still voting based on the Kurdish parties.

And so therefore there's different - a little bit of difference in certain ideologies among the Kurdish political organizations, and people are voting for one of those based on which one they'd prefer.

MARTIN: And finally, I wanted to ask, our people back home in Iraq offering any feedback here to you? Are they saying this guy is good and we like this or something like that? Or are you hearing from people who are politicking from a distance, as it were?

Mr. ALAN: Sure. Elections is an exciting time, especially for somewhere like Iraq, when we dont have much experience with that and its still a new thing. So everybodys excited about it, from kids age five years old to old people, basically, 90s, 95 years old. They're all excited about it. Everybody has their own candidates, and they're advocating for their own people who they want to vote for. And it's an exciting time. So, yeah, we get a lot of feedback from different relatives, then, who are voting from different organizations. So its not like all of them are voting for one political party or the other.

MARTIN: Okay. Andy, finally I wanted to ask you - youre very involved in things going on in the Washington, D.C. area. Your restaurants are a sought-after gathering place for American politicians and their staffs. I mean, its one of the places people often go to watch election returns. So are you getting excited about it or not? I cant really tell from talking to you.

Mr. SHALLAL: Well, I mean, honestly, Im lot more excited about it this time than the last time that the election was taking place. I think this election seems fairer. I think its more inclusive. I think its (technical difficulties) for people, and the candidates are actually visible. They're out in public. They're actually campaigning.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. SHALLAL: This is something new, Iraqis have not seen.

MARTIN: All right, thanks. Well, keep us posted. Andy Shallal is a businessman here in Washington, D.C. Ara Alan is a youth activist living in Atlanta. Both are heading to the polls this weekend to cast their votes in Iraqs parliamentary elections. Gentleman, I thank you both so much.

Mr. SHALLAL: Thank you, Michel.

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