Irvine, Calif. Hussan Al Taee woke before the crack of dawn and drove seven hours from Arizona, but he was all smiles Monday after registering to vote in an Iraqi election for the first time.
Al Taee, 37, of Phoenix, was among thousands of Iraqi expatriates who showed up at polling stations in 14 countries from Australia to the United States on Monday to register to vote in their homeland's first independent election in nearly 50 years.
"I get happy and my family's happy because they come for voting. For many years we don't do voting in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, he took all the voting," said Al Taee, a Shiite Muslim who said he fled Iraq 10 years ago and now owns a smoke shop in Phoenix.
He arrived with his wife, 1-year-old son and cousin to add his name to the list of some 35,000 Iraqi immigrants expected to register at the polling station set up at a decommissioned Marine base in Southern California.
Cities in four other states -- Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland and Illinois -- held registration for the Jan. 30 election. About 240,000 Iraqis are eligible to vote in the United States, according to Roger Bryant of the International Center for Migration, which is in charge of the overseas voting for the Iraqi government.
Eligible voters can be American citizens, but must be 18 or older, have been born in Iraq, hold citizenship or prove that their father was Iraqi.
Preparations for the election around the world mirrored those in Iraq itself, where the top U.S. general there predicted violence during the national election but pledged Monday to do "everything in our power" to ensure safety of voters.
The U.S. polling stations were monitored by armed guards and metal detectors.
At the polling station in Nashville, 3-foot concrete barriers forced buses bringing voters to zig-zag as if entering a checkpoint as an armed officer checked credentials.
"Everybody saw the barriers coming in here. Some people are saying, 'We're not in Fallujah,"' said Ahmed Mossa, a volunteer at the polling place.
Eligible Iraqis abroad -- estimated to number 1.2 million -- can vote in Britain, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States.