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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Jenan al-Baderi, center, joins her children Salwa, 13, left, Kasak, 15, Narjis, 4, and Moftapha, 7, at their home in West Valley City. Al-Baderi will drive to Irvine, Calif., twice to register and to vote.

This weekend, Benan Zahawi and several friends will climb into a rented van, drive 12 hours across the desert, then turn around and drive 12 hours back.

Next week, they'll make the same sleepless trip all over again. That's 48 hours and 2,700 miles — just so they can vote in the upcoming Iraqi elections.

Zahawi is part of a group of about 50 mostly Shia Iraqis leaving Utah on Friday night to make the trip to Irvine, Calif., the closest of five U.S. polling places.

"The best gift for my country is to vote," said Jenan al-Baderi of West Valley City, who also plans two trips to California to vote. "After the vote, freedom. Before that, we didn't have anything."

The two trips are necessary because registration for Iraqi voting in the United States is being held Jan. 17-23, while the voting itself will be held Jan. 28-30. Along with Iraqis in Iraq, "out-of-country" Iraqis in 14 nations will be choosing 275 people to serve on the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly. They'll select from a pool of 364 candidates and political groups.

For Utah Iraqis, it's a long and complicated trip to the voting booth. Although some will fly to California, many will make the trip by car. Some will travel with children, some will take out loans to pay for rental cars and lodging. Some are planning to make the round-trip with no layover, timing their arrival with the 10 a.m. opening of registration.

But nobody's complaining.

"We have been waiting a long time" to vote, said Thikra Mohammed, originally from Baghdad, who will be taking the trip with her husband and two children. "We are faithful, we have to (vote). It is not just for our people, it is for all Iraq."

At an informational meeting last weekend at the Alrasool Islamic Center in South Salt Lake, a group of Utah Iraqis listened to a presentation about the elections and talked about the risks their family members in Iraq were planning to take in order to vote — risks that made their own inconveniences pale by comparison.

"They urge me to go, and I urge them to go," Mustafa al-Hussaini said of his family in Basra.

Voting, he said, is "a chance for us to prove to the rest of the world that we want a stable Iraq, . . . a country that can live in peace with the rest of the world."

The presentations last Saturday included photographs of life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein: destroyed mosques, rows of white body bags, twisted bodies after a chemical attack, a baby dead of starvation, weeping mothers. The images, said al-Hussaini, were meant to emphasize that it's important not to make the same mistake their parents and grandparents made — allowing a brutal dictator to ruin a generation.

"He gives me chills," a young girl said about Saddam as she watched the presentation, which also included photos of Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the candidates he endorses.

When Bryan Catherman, a University of Utah student and Iraq war veteran, found out the nearest polling place was in California, he was appalled that people would have to travel so far to vote. So, he's raising money to help.

"The kind of attitude I saw, people were willing to give their lives in the face of horrible odds," said Catherman, who returned from a six-month tour in Iraq in April.

"To think, my brother-in-law didn't drive down the street to vote, and these people are going to drive to California. It just floors me. I'm really impressed," he said.

Al-Hussaini said help from the community is welcome for those who might miss out because of the financial burden. However, al-Hussaini and others who can afford the trip say they're willing and happy to pay for it.

Catherman said the Utah Iraqis' patriotism is reflective of the attitude he saw in Iraq, even in volatile places such as Fallujah. In border patrol training classes, Iraqis seemed more interested in learning how to vote than their combat training, he said.

"This was a completely mind-blowing process. They were so excited about" voting, he said. "It planted something in me so profound, I will never miss another election."

According to University of Utah history professor Peter Sluglett, the Iraqi elections will be a far cry from what Americans may have in mind. Many voters will never have heard of the candidates, he said, and "the candidates have not had, and will not have, the opportunity to present themselves to the public. It is as if you are voting Republican, but is it for Huntsman or someone else?"

The Iraqis have had no real elections in Iraq since the 1940s, he said.

The elections that were held were more like "elections under the Nazis: The president gets 99.9 percent of the vote, and you wonder what happened to the one percent that didn't vote for him," he said.

Sluglett predicts the turnout for voting in Iraq on Jan. 30 will not be very high.

"On the other hand, it is worth remembering this is not an election to produce a government, but an election to produce a sort of constitutional congress," he said.

The Transitional National Assembly will write a draft of the permanent constitution for Iraq, elect a president and two deputy presidents, and legislate and exercise oversight over the work of the executive authority, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is coordinating Iraq's overseas vote.

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U.S. polling stations include Irvine, in Orange County; Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and Washington, D.C. "Out-of-country" voting will be held in 13 other countries, from Denmark to Australia, and will include about 1 million voters, according to the IOM.

Voters must be born on or before Dec. 31, 1986, and must present a document that lists an Iraqi birthplace, a document that lists citizenship or nationality, or a document that shows paternal link to an Iraqi — plus proof of the father's nationality as an Iraqi.

Catherman said he'll try to raise enough funds to meet the needs of those who can't afford the trip. Anyone interested in helping, or in need of help, can contact him at 801-808-5672.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com; dbulkeley@desnews.com