A New Castle resident and his wife will drive to Detroit to cast their votes.
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. -- As Sunday's elections in Iraq approach, insurgents opposed to the country's fledgling democracy continue to wage a murderous campaign designed to intimidate citizens planning to vote.
The killers won't succeed, said Dr. Abbass Alkhafaji, an Iraqi citizen and professor of management at Slippery Rock University. The attacks on his countrymen have emboldened his belief that freedom ultimately will prevail in his homeland.
"The people are suffering," said Alkhafaji, a resident of New Castle who will cast his ballot Sunday in Detroit, one of five U.S. cities where Iraqi-Americans can vote. "Many Iraqi people lack basic needs like food and electricity. The insurgents have killed so many Iraqis, and so many Americans. All I have to do is ride five hours with my family to vote.
"It is an honor to do it."
Alkhafaji has not lived in Iraq for 30 years, having fled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship for a life of freedom in the United States, where he also holds citizenship.
Saddam's reign put Iraq 50 years behind the rest of the world, Alkhafaji said, and the decades of torture and killing he oversaw left an imprint on the citizenry. They learned to live in fear, he said, which is why he has staunchly supported Iraq's holding elections as scheduled.
Sunni Muslim extremists have vowed to sabotage the election, while many clerics have called for a boycott because of the presence of U.S. troops in the country. Reports show that two-thirds of Iraqis live in districts that have seen insurgent attacks within the past month.
Yet Alkhafaji said he believes strongly that the vast majority of Iraqis support the democracy and that many of the insurgents are coming from outside of Iraq.
"We will not give in to the insurgents," he said. "The Iraqi people will defy them. They will come to the polls despite the consequences. Even in the troubled areas, they will take part. We must try to protect them. This is a historic day for the Iraqi people."
'Free to choose'
Alkhafaji will travel to Detroit with his wife and four of his seven children. He wants his youngsters to appreciate the significance of the day, he said.
"I'm very happy, actually I'm very lucky, to participate in this election," Alkhafaji said. "I hope someday my children can go over and see the country. Freedom is an important aspect of human life. Seeing people free to do, to choose, to start a business, to buy a home. That's why we're voting. For all Iraqis, for our children."
While Americans have followed news from Iraq more closely since U.S. forces toppled Saddam's regime in 2003, Alkhafaji said he has watched his country from afar through many tragic events.
"Saddam did much damage to Iraq, so much for which we continue to pay the price," he said. "Many do not know that Iraq lost more than 1.5 million people in the 35 years of Saddam's rule."
As he ponders the election and who might win, Alkhafaji said, "to be honest, just about anyone will do a better job than Saddam."
Lots of interest
Not surprisingly, Iraq's new democracy has spawned many politicians vying for power, with more than 200 political parties presently in Iraq. On Sunday, voters will select lists of candidates instead of individuals.
The victorious groups will create a 275-member National Assembly and regional legislatures.
In an effort to secure votes, many of the political entities have formed alliances, hoping to broaden their support.
"The current prime minister is in an alliance with 10 other parties," Alkhafaji said. "We are so new in the democratic process. Everyone has opinions, they share them with each other and that has led to alliances."
Alkhafaji said he intends to vote for the coalition that includes interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi because he believes he has the experience to put down the insurgency.
"He did very well under pressure, and I think he can do even a better job in the future once the government is established."
But Alkhafaji said his wife plans to vote for a different group, and he's glad she will be able to do so.
"Whatever the result is, I will respect it and support it," he said. "Just like in our country. Some people voted for John Kerry, and some voted for George Bush. And we support George Bush because he is the president. So I am voting to support the system in Iraq.
"All I need is a democracy."