Iraqis living abroad have begun casting their votes in the country's landmark general election, two days before polling stations open in Iraq. Members of the Iraqi community living in the Czech Republic registered for the vote last week in neighbouring Germany and most of them are going to the polls on Saturday, to join what is probably the largest ever out-of-country voting programme.
About 280,000 Iraqi voters have registered in fourteen countries, among them around a hundred Iraqis living in the Czech Republic. The Czech Foreign Ministry in cooperation with the charity People in Need are dispatching charter buses which will take them to the nearest polling station in Berlin early on Saturday morning. One of the voters travelling to Berlin is Mr Khalil Shamma who helped to organise the voting trip.
"I think this is a great chance of the Iraqi nation to choose their own representatives for the first time. It will be a great test of democracy. I think that good Iraqis who want democracy and freedom will come out and vote. I think 98 percent of Iraqis both in Iraq and abroad support the elections. Many cannot join them for various technical reasons, so only about a quarter of Iraqi expats are expected to cast their ballots. But I'm sure all of them would like to."
Some Czech Iraqis will also travel by their own cars, some of them to Berlin and others to the German city of Munich. Although the Iraqi insurgents have told voters to boycott the polls, threatening more attacks in Iraq, Mr Shamma says the Czech Iraqis have not received any threats and everything so far has gone smoothly. For fear of attacks, many names of the candidates had not been released until earlier this week but Khalil Shamma says the Czech Iraqi community is well informed.
"Of course, we have been following the preparations. We are in direct contact with the political parties and some candidates and we know them. We have also been cooperating with the opposition for many years."
In Iraq itself, polling stations will open on Sunday. Extended curfews and strict traffic restrictions have already been put into place. The Czech Republic's embassy in Baghdad has also taken strict security measures. Petr Prebinda specialises is Middle East affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
"The embassy staff was already reduced to three persons and those three will be basically sitting inside the embassy's compound and they won't be leaving the embassy because the security situation does not allow that. It is in accordance with the strategy of almost all foreign embassies and missions there. The majority of European missions have already issued a travel ban. The situation does not allow the embassy staff to move freely around the city for several weeks. It is only in cases of emergency or very important meetings that the people do leave the embassy and travel around with protection, of course."
On Thursday, the Czech Parliament approved a government proposal that the Czech military police stationed in the Iraqi city of Basra should stay in the country until the end of this year. Petr Prebinda says that apart from them there are very few Czech nationals in Iraq at the moment.
"We don't know the exact numbers because people are not obliged to register or inform the embassy but as far as we know, with the exception of the diplomats there and the protection forces from the Czech police and our soldiers in the military police in Basra, there is only a very limited number of Czech citizens in Iraq. Probably there are some drivers working for the transportation companies and some businessmen but their number is really very low. We are talking about a few persons, in fact."
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