NEW CARROLLTON – Shihab Shamma’s right index finger was stained with bluish purple ink Friday — a mark signifying that he voted in the historic Iraq elections and cannot vote again.
“I won’t wash this finger,” Shamma said. “Somebody in Iraq is doing this and they have to hide their hand.”
Shamma, 50, was among the first — in what will be a three-day wave of Iraqi voters — to cast his ballot in Iraq’s democratic election at the Ramada Inn and Conference Center here, one of five polling locations in the United States.
He knows he is lucky to vote here.
“I don’t have to risk my life to come for a vote.”
In Iraq, he said, there will be fear of reprisal from the insurgents threatening voters.
“The place is a cesspool. You have to drain it and start over.”
The engineering professor at the University of Maryland, College Park grew up in Baghdad but has lived in the United States for 30 years.
“I left at the time on scholarship,” Shamma said. “Everybody who left at the time could see the writing on the wall.”
He has only returned once, arriving about two weeks before the invasion of Kuwait. “I wanted to go back and visit my friends and family.”
Shamma’s wife is an American and they have three sons, none of whom are of voting age. They live in Chevy Chase, D.C.
“I hope the election will be the beginning of recovery,” Shamma said. “It feels more like a celebration than an election.”
His immediate family has all migrated out of Iraq, but he still has cousins, aunts and uncles there, all of whom will vote, he said. He said he hopes to return with his parents to Baghdad one day, and maybe spend his sabbatical there.
“The one complaint every Iraqi I know has, they can only vote for one (party). They wish they could make a hybrid.”
Voters must choose one party from 111, with over 1,000 candidates, according to an official with the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program, Michael Irish’ Stephenson.
Shamma said the election is about the big picture and not confined to a candidate’s ideology.
“The elections are not about the president or prime minister,” he said. “They are about writing a constitution and there are enough checks and balances for a decent constitution.”
Friday’s voting attendance was sparse.
“It’s a work day, so I expect people will come this weekend,” said Irish’ Stephenson.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 25,000 people registered in the United States with a little more than 2,000 of them coming from Prince George’s County. The Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program USA had said as many as 20,000 Iraqis might register and vote at the Ramada.
The New Carrollton hotel on Annapolis Road is the only polling place on the Eastern seaboard. Other locations are Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn.
Voters may cast ballots through Sunday here and in 13 countries. These are the first democratic elections since well before March 2003 when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In Iraq, voting will be held only on Sunday.
Shamma said the voting delay and security-related hassle are less than what he experiences at the airport.
He talked about the sacrifice other expatriate Iraqis have had to go through to vote and its importance.
“It is legitimate because it is all what you feel inside.”