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With violence back home, Michigan's Iraqis go to the polls

Kate Wells

Michigan’s Iraqi community heads to the polls this week in the first major election since U.S. troops left the country.

It’s both an ecstatic and extremely tense time.

One voting site is a big, ornate banquet hall in Dearborn, and it's packed with Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – all Iraqis, many with kids and grandparents taking pictures of each other holding up ink-stained fingers, souvenirs from casting their ballots.

Multiple people mentioned “feeling like this is a wedding,” and several made big sacrifices in order to cast their ballots.

At the polls on Sunday in Dearborn, Mohammed Ahmad said he’s missing his daughter’s graduation.

“And I’m not there, I’m here, trying to cast my voice,” he said, his voice breaking as he began to cry. “We could rebuild Iraq.”

In Iraq, 3,000 killed so far this year 

The current political violence in Iraq is stunning even by the beleaguered country’s standards: Some 3,000 people have been killed so far this year, with three bombs killing dozens more at a political rally this past weekend.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to win a third term. But he’ll need a majority in parliament if he’s going to push through big legislation.

His critics, however, say al-Maliki is consolidating too much power, a dangerously familiar pattern for a country so recently emerged from dictatorship.

Meanwhile, violent anti-government factions have promised to target and disrupt the elections in Iraq this Wednesday.

"To the terrorists: you kill one? Guess what? There are another 100 that will get up the next day and go to the ballot box."

So while metro Detroit residents can come vote in peace today, their minds are with their families in Iraq.

“I could have my brother and my sister back home go to the ballot box and get blown up,” said Ihsan Mirza.

But he’s still telling them to go vote.

“And I’m sure each and every one of us (voting in Michigan) will call home every day until Wednesday to push everyone to go and elect. Because we have no other choice. Either we push forward, or we retreat and let them take over and destroy us. We have no other choice.”

Mirza says it’s only by voting that Iraqis can send a message to those who want to disrupt the elections and return the country to sectarian strife.

“To those terrorists: you kill one? Guess what? There are another 100 that will get up the next day and go to the ballot box,” said Mirza.

“No matter what you do, this is our country. We love it. We will make it happen. We will rebuild this country. And that’s the message that we’re sending with these message boxes."

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.