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Iraqis worldwide celebrate landmark vote

More than 280,000 expatriates registered in 14 countries

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International Organization for Migration

(CNN) -- "I feel as if I've just been born"; "It was the best thing I have actually ever done in my life"; "This is just like a dream."

Those were the words of Iraqi expatriates Friday as they went to polling sites around the world to take part in the first free Iraqi elections in more than a half-century.

Around the world in 14 countries, tens of thousands of expatriates -- many of them exiles who fled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship -- were jubilant as they had a say in their homeland's government for the first time.

Organizers said more than 280,000 Iraqi expatriates registered to vote, and in many places can do so through Sunday.

The total number of registrations represents only about 25 percent of the Iraqis believed to be living abroad and eligible to vote.

In the United States, only 25,000 registered -- barely more than 10 percent of the 235,000 Iraqis who organizers said were eligible to vote.

Peter Erben of the International Organization for Migration, which is overseeing the out-of-country voting effort, insisted the registration numbers are impressive.

A 25 percent voter turnout "in a diaspora vote is more than most democracies can boast of," he said.

Many expatriates at polling sites expressed displeasure that their comrades were not rushing to take part.

"I say to others: You've lost your chance," said 20-year-old Ola Hussein in London, England, adding that she hopes they will take part in future elections.

About 31,000 expatriates are registered in Britain and about the same number in Sweden. More than 25,000 are registered in Germany.

Thanks to Americans

After months of headlines from Iraq dominated by struggles to gain stability in the country and seemingly endless spates of deadly attacks, Friday became a time of celebration.

Many Iraqis expressed gratitude not only for the chance to vote, but also for the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam.

"I'd like to thank every American in uniform," said Nick Najjar in Southgate, Michigan.

"I'd like to thank the government of the United States entirely, Democratic or Republic[an] for what they did to Iraq to liberate Iraq from Saddam's dictatorship. Thank you very much."

"It's the greatest day in my life, the greatest feeling ever in my life," said Montador Almosawi, also in Southgate.

"My feeling is that I'm doing something for my country. And we always say that a distance of 1,000 miles starts with one step -- and that's the biggest step we're doing right now."

"This is just like a dream for all of the Kurdish people in Iraq," said 22-year-old Goran Rahim, whose family fled Kirkuk when he was 5, after Saddam's regime gassed thousands of Kurds.

Rahim, his brother and a friend played Kurdish music in the parking lot of the polling site in New Carrollton, Maryland, where they planned to camp out for three days as voters keep coming.

"We've spent our lives ... in evilness, now it's time for happiness, and we can spend three days in happiness," he said.

Rahim said his vote is "against those terrorists, those evils. And my vote is for all those Iraqi kids -- I don't want them to experience my yesterday that I had."

Polling sites for Iraqi citizens in the United States were open in and around Los Angeles, California; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and Detroit, Michigan.

"Some people have traveled 20 hours" to vote, said Roger Bryant, head of the U.S. office of out-of-country voting. "There is a great interest in this process."

Unlike voters in Iraq, who plan to head to the polls under the threat of bloody attacks, expatriates in most places had no such concerns. (Attacks continue)

'You feel like you want to cry'

The voting began with Shimon Haddad, who, as manager of the biggest voting center in Australia, cast his ballot about 15 minutes before the polls opened at 7 a.m. (3 p.m. ET Thursday) in Sydney.

He 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," he said. (Full story)

Some of the strongest participation was reported in Iran, where 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 Syria, about 10 percent of Iraqis believed to be living in the country have registered to vote. By midday Friday there was a trickle of voters at a site in Damascus.

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

Maaksoud said he felt like "a new human."

Outside a polling site in London, 19-year-old Zaineb Field said, "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."

Many voters in every country were confounded by the process that requires them to cast a single ballot for a list of candidates for the 275-seat transitional 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. It 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, Brent Sadler and Andrea Koppel, and journalist Anthony Clark, contributed to this report.

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