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Iraq Transition

Our pride, by first Iraqis to vote

Official tells of 'jubilant' mood among Iraqi ex-pats

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How Iraqis will vote when they head to the polls on Sunday.

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(CNN) -- In Syria on Friday, an Iraqi expatriate, voting in the nation's first free elections in more than half a century, said he felt "as if I've just been born."

In London, an Iraqi woman called it "the best thing I have actually ever done in my life." And in Australia, the first person in the world to cast a ballot in the elections described himself as "very excited, very happy."

"Happy because I vote -- the first time in our life we were allowed to vote for a democratic government," Shimon Haddad told CNN. As manager of the biggest voting center in Australia, he voted about 15 minutes before the polls officially opened at 7 a.m. (2000 GMT Thursday) in Sydney.

Iraqi expatriates -- a great many of them exiles who fled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship -- can vote in 14 countries from the United States to Europe to the Middle East. As many as 280,000 expatriates are expected to vote.

Voting in Iraq will take place Sunday. Unlike in that country, voters in most others had little fear of their security in going to the polling sites.

The jubilation was clear everywhere, including the United States, in which Iraqis can vote in one of five cities.

"I'm really so much excited about this because this is election -- and we never really have it all our life, said Layla al-Jawad, voting in Detroit.

But the excitement did not translate into broad participation. In many nations, only about 10 percent of Iraqi expatriates have registered to vote.

One prominent exception was Iran, in which 60,000 people registered -- a figure believed to represent about 75 percent of Iraqis in the country.

"We have come today to vote for a future of Iraq aimed at having an Islamic republic," said Iraqi expatriate Raziyeh Hossein, who voted in Tehran.

In the United States, Roger Bryant, head of the U.S. office of out-of-country voting, said Friday that officials estimated there were about 235,000 eligible Iraqi voters. About 25,000 have registered.

But Bryant insisted "this isn't a low turnout," because officials had considered "maximum figures" in determining the total number of possible voters.

Polls are open in and around Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Nashville, and Detroit.

"Some people have traveled 20 hours" to vote, he said. "There is a great interest in this process."

"It's the greatest day in my life, the greatest feeling ever in my life," said Montador Almosawi in Southgate, Mich. "My feeling is that I'm doing something for my country. And we always say that distance of 1,000 miles starts with one step --and that's the biggest step we're doing right now."

In Syria, about 10 percent of Iraqis believed to be living in the country have registered to vote as well.

By mid-day Friday, there was a trickle a voters at a site in Beirut. Iraqi exiles Falah Hassan, a shoe factory worker, and Muayed Maaksoud, an agricultural engineer, drove four hours to the capital.

"I am lost for words," said Hassan. "I am 49 years old, but I feel as if I've just been born."

Maaksoud said he felt like "a new human."

Huge choice

Outside a polling site in London, 19-year-old Zaineb Field told CNN, "I must say it was the best thing I have actually ever done in my life. ... People were clapping, so emotional, you feel like you want to cry."

Fellow voter Ola Hussein, 20, had sharp words for fellow Iraqi expatriates not voting. "I say to others: You've lost your chance," she said, adding that she hopes that next year Iraqi expatriates will take part in the next stage of elections.

Some voters in every city were confounded by the process. Inside and outside of Iraq, voters cast a single ballot for a list of candidates for the 275-seat National Assembly. There are more than 100 lists to choose from.

Each party or coalition represented by a list will be awarded seats based on the proportion of votes each receives.

The National Assembly will eventually select a president and two vice presidents, and the president will appoint a prime minister. The National Assembly will also write a national constitution, which is to be put before voters in a referendum in October.

"This is democracy in the making. This is freedom in the making," said Ghanim al-Shibli, Iraq's ambassador to Australia. "The Iraqi people are experiencing and tasting freedom. This is something tremendous -- just give you goose pimples."

CNN's Robyn Curnow and Brent Sadler and Journalist Anthony Clark contributed to this report.

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