Iraqi teacher in Cape skips historic vote

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Imad Khamis grew up north of Baghdad. Although he's lived in the United States for 14 years, he's still an Iraqi citizen. But Khamis won't be voting in today's election, the first free election in that desert nation in more than 50 years.

"I don't know anything about the candidates," said Khamis, an assistant professor of mathematics at Southeast Missouri State University.

Nearly 26,000 Iraqis living in the United States had registered to vote at polling places set up in five U.S. cities with heavy Iraqi populations: Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., Los Angeles and Washington.

For Khamis, the closest polling place would have been in Nashville, a four-hour drive.

Iraqi expatriates began voting in polling places Friday.

In all, about 240,000 Iraqi expatriates in 14 countries are expected to cast ballots this weekend.

There are an estimated 14 million voters in Iraq.

While he regularly keeps up with situation in Iraq by reading Arabic-language newspapers on the Internet and in telephone conversations with relatives in Iraq, Khamis -- who teaches statistics -- said the election involves a confusing mix of candidates.

With more than 110 political parties or slates -- some 7,700 candidates in all -- competing for seats in the 275-member National Assembly, the ballot looks more like a telephone book.

Many of the candidates haven't lived in Iraq for years and aren't known to many Iraqis.

"How can you elect somebody you don't know?" Khamis asked.

Iraqi newspapers only recently published the names of some of the candidates whose identities had previously been kept secret to protect them from assassination by Muslim insurgents.

The insurgents have vowed to disrupt the voting with car bombings and other attacks.

About 300,000 multinational troops and police will provide security for the voting, which will take place at 5,300 polling centers.

But Khamis said security remains a real concern to many of his relatives who question putting their lives at risk by going to the polls.

Khamis believes many in Iraq will stay away from the polls. Many Iraqis, he said, are asking one simple question: "Why should I get killed?"

Said Khamis, "It is too soon for an election."

Iraq is plagued by continued violence, many people are out of work and basic services like electricity are in short supply, he said.

Many Iraqis have never known anything but dictatorship, Khamis said.

They have no expectations about democracy and no certainty about their future government, he said.

Voters will choose a National Assembly that will govern the country and draft a permanent constitution, as well as choose provincial councils.

But it could take until December at the earliest for the country to have a new constitution in place, political observers say.

Some observers worry the election only will cause further splits between the Sunni Muslim minority and the Shiite Muslim majority.

But Khamis believes such divisions often are blown out of proportion. A Sunni, Khamis is married to a Shiite.

His wife and five children live in Manhattan, Kan., where Khamis went to college. The family operates several businesses there. Khamis has taught at Southeast for the past four years.

He said Iraqis need to be educated about how democracy works before they can be counted on to vote.

The U.S.-backed transitional government in Iraq has rushed the election process when the focus should be on rebuilding the country first, he said.

"You can't give democracy to someone without food or electricity," Khamis said.

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