Cheers and tears as UK exiles taste democracy

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Indy Politics

A spontaneous round of applause broke out from a corner of the polling station at Wembley Conference Centre in north London as an emotional young Iraqi woman pushed her ballot paper through the box with trembling fingers.

A spontaneous round of applause broke out from a corner of the polling station at Wembley Conference Centre in north London as an emotional young Iraqi woman pushed her ballot paper through the box with trembling fingers.

Saezea Khoei, 26, had turned up at the first day of the "out of country" voting for electing Iraq's transitional national assembly in memory of her father, who died at the hands of Saddam Hussein.

She said: "He was the leader of Shia Muslims so he was an obvious target. We got a phone call in July 1994 at midnight to say he'd been killed by a car bomb. They didn't allow us to have a funeral or to see him.

"As I stand here today, I'm thinking of my father and how he would have felt. He was striving for democracy and today I am experiencing it.''

Ms Khoei was among 1,000 expatriates and exiles who had cast their vote in London by lunchtime yesterday. The voting took place in 14 countries outside Iraq,with three polling booths in Britain - in London, Glasgow and Manchester. It was organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). But there was some criticism by the voters who made it to Wembley about the lack of stations around the country. They said this had excluded many of the estimated 150,000 Iraqis in the UK eligible to vote.

An IOM spokesman said: "A number of factors have made it difficult for some. Not everyone can come in first to register and then a week later again to vote. One couple who had been to haj during the registration process had come thinking today they might have another opportunity. They travelled from Surrey but had to be turned away.''

Among those who were celebrating casting their vote was Ms Khoei's cousin, Asha Musawi, 21, from north London, who lost her father and six-year-old brother to the same car bomb. She said voting had been a deeply emotional moment and marked a new beginning.

She said: "Millions died waiting for this moment. They could not live to see it happen. We are here to represent them."

As hundreds from across the country filed through the conference centre - many in festive, traditional dress, there were frequent bursts of applause and cheering.

The celebrations extended to the street outside as a group of Kurds from Haringey in north London took to the streets with green and white Kurdish flags.

Salah al-Shaikhly, the Iraqi ambassador, expressed his delight at what he said was a momentous day. "I am over 60 and I've never before gone to an Iraqi polling station. This is an historic turning point for Iraq. To me, it is like a rebirth of a country and like any birth, it is not without pain,'' he said.

Suzan Hasan, 32, wore traditional Kurdish dress for the occasion. She and her husband, Serbest Abdullah, 45, hope it could lead to Kurdish independence. "We are hoping for independence but at this moment we're just happy with an Iraq free of dictators," she said.

One British-born Iraqi, Zaineb Field, 19, a biochemistry student from London, was so excited by the prospect of voting she had arrived at Wembley by 5.45am to become the first person to cast a vote. "I was too excited to sleep." she said. "I almost cried when I put my vote in the ballot box. It was overwhelming."

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