USA TODAY: Here in the theological hub of Shiite Islam for the past quarter-century, thousands of Iraqis who fled the regime
of Saddam Hussein voted Sunday for candidates who they hope will make Iraq a more Islamic state. "I'm very happy if Islam gets the biggest victory," said Zohour Aziz Ansar, 56, who came to Qom from the Iraqi Shiite city of Karbala 23 years ago. USA TODAY

By Barbara Slavin

QOM, Iran — Here in the theological hub of Shiite Islam for the past quarter-century, thousands of Iraqis who fled the regime of Saddam Hussein voted Sunday for candidates who they hope will make Iraq a more Islamic state.

"I'm very happy if Islam gets the biggest victory," said Zohour Aziz Ansar, 56, who came to Qom from the Iraqi Shiite city of Karbala 23 years ago.

Ansar and most of those voting in an Islamic center named for the Iraqi city of Najaf said they had chosen number 169 on the ballot for the United Iraqi Alliance, a party blessed by Iraq's senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The list includes a number of prominent Iraqi Shiite politicians. Many voters were clerics wearing turbans. Most of the women were draped head-to-toe in black robes worn by devout Shiites.

The atmosphere at the voting center was mostly festive.

"All the people are very happy," said Qasem Abdel Rahman, 37, an Iraqi election official who left Baghdad 20 years ago.

But several Kurdish observers complained that illiterate voters were being told to vote for the Sistani-approved list by Shiite election workers and clerics. "We've had multiple voting here, and I saw one person vote three times," said Mohammed Amin Sheikh Mohammed, a Kurd from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil who now lives in Kashan, Iran.

Hamed Mirzai, another Iraqi of Kurdish origin who said he was in charge of the polling station, denied there was a problem. He said the Kurdish observers were annoyed that they were being kept along one wall of the Islamic center and not allowed to approach the cardboard polling stations.

Monica Ellena, spokeswoman in Tehran for the International Organization for Migration, which organized out-of-country voting for Iraqis in 14 nations, said anyone who observed an irregularity was entitled to file a complaint.

More than 60,000 Iraqis registered to vote in Iran, the highest number outside Iraq. Most went to Iran in the early 1980s to flee Saddam's regime.

By Saturday, 67% of them had voted, Ellena said.

Of those registering in Iran, the largest group, 21,000, registered in Qom, said Ans Zwerrer, a former Dutch senator. More than half had voted by Saturday, she said. But several hundred people waited patiently to cast ballots Sunday in the Najaf center.

Iranians close to the Islamic government here have expressed satisfaction that Iraq, a historic rival, is about to get a government reflecting its Shiite majority. About 60% of Iraqis are Shiite; about 90% of Iranians are.

The two countries have a bitter history. Iraq, controlled by Saddam's Sunni Arab dictatorship, fought an eight-year war with Iran that killed and injured an estimated 1 million people before it ended in 1988. The two neighbors never signed a peace agreement.

"We think what the Americans have done is very good for Iran," said Mehdi Hashemi, son of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful former Iranian president who is considering running for president again in June.

Hashemi predicted that the head of the Sistani-approved slate, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, will become speaker of the Iraqi parliament. Hakim is a Shiite cleric from a prominent clerical family.

He also thought either Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of the Dawa or Islamic Call Party, or Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite once close to the United States, will become prime minister, replacing interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

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