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Caravan sees freedom on road to Iraq election

Iraqi-Americans will travel to Tennessee to cast votes a world away.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published January 28, 2005


[Photo courtesy of Raad Rassool]
Arasalan Mustafa, Ali Al Hassan, Kadhim Hassnan, Emir Al Maliki, Jawad Ali, Maki Kubba and Raad Rassool registered last week. Most plan to drive back to Nashville to vote.

A dozen Iraqi-American men from the Tampa Bay area crammed into a brown rented van last Friday night and drove north into the darkness. They left Florida, crossed Georgia and entered Tennessee by dawn.

At each of the gas stations and rest stops along the way, people began asking questions as soon as they saw the sign on the van:

Iraqi Freedom Caravan

Voting for Freedom!

God Bless

Iraq and America

So they explained: They were en route to Nashville to register for the Iraqi elections. Today, most of the men will drive back, this time to cast their votes in what may be the first truly democratic election in a land that has been home to some of the world's earliest civilizations. Another four or five voters will probably follow in a separate car.

Even as insurgents threaten to disrupt the election in large parts of Iraq, these men, most of whom say they consider themselves both Iraqi and American, are optimistic that the election will bring democracy to a region that generally hasn't known it.

"This is a turning point in the Middle East," said Maki Kubba, 47, of Clearwater, a real estate agent who helped organize the van trips.

"A democratic Iraq means the end of all the tyrants."

The election in Iraq this weekend is unusual in many respects, and not just because it stems from the American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

It offers a chance for Iraqi nationals - who include Iraqi citizens, former Iraqi citizens, people born in Iraq and in some cases their children - to vote, even if they live in other countries such as the United States.

But imagine an election with just five polling places in America. American Iraqis can vote in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville or Washington, today, Saturday or Sunday. Voters needed to register one weekend and vote the next, which was too much for many Iraqis in Florida who are busy with jobs and families.

"In Iraq, with all the chaotic situations, you can vote and register at the same time, where here you have to register and wait a week," said Dr. Hadi Hakki, a cardiovascular surgeon in Pinellas County who couldn't make the trips on consecutive weekends. But in spite of his disappointment at not being able to participate, he said he's pleased overall with the prospect of free elections in his native country.

"I'm elated," he said. "This is a beautiful thing, it's historic. I think it's the best thing that ever happened to Iraq."

Raad Rassool also rode in the van to Nashville last weekend. What surprised him was seeing how happy other Americans seemed to be when the "Freedom Caravan" stopped at gas stations and rest stops along the way.

"A lot of people were very, very friendly, and a lot of people just wanted to know," said Rassool, 36. So the travelers explained how happy they were for the chance to vote.

At one stop, "they sat there with us the entire half-hour. They didn't want to leave."

Strangers offered to let the men spend the night at their houses, to make the trip easier.

"It makes you feel warm inside, because you're not expecting it," Rassool said.

Sometimes, Rassool said, "you hear a lot of negatives, how bad America is to the Middle East." He disagrees. He points to the way people are supporting the election and says, "That's real America."

Rassool has a unique perspective. He was born in Iraq, the son of a father from Baghdad and a mother who grew up in Jackson, Mich. Before turning 10, his family fled the government of Saddam Hussein and moved to Michigan. He said he has dual citizenship in Iraq and the United States, so he has voted in many American elections. This is the first time he has voted for candidates in Iraq.

"Here I am voting for an Iraqi election," he said. "I felt more proud of being an American than anything."

Rassool is a software engineer who divides his time between Tampa and Detroit and plans to cast his vote in Detroit this weekend, so he will not be taking the van ride tonight.

But Kubba, the real estate agent from Clearwater, will be on board. He said the election is important because voting "is the best bullet to shoot against the terrorists."

He said democracy holds the promise of uniting diverse people in Iraq, and showing it's a better system than the one advocated by terrorists. In the United States, he says, "I've seen people pro-Kerry and pro-Bush in the same house ... that's the best gift America has given to the Iraqi people."

Kubba, who is divorced and has one son, may return to Iraq soon. In the next Iraqi election, he is thinking of becoming not just a voter, but a candidate.

"Even if you lose, you are a winner," he said. "The idea is to teach the next generation, hey every Iraqi citizen has a right to nominate himself."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or at 727 893-8232.

[Last modified January 28, 2005, 07:40:57]


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