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Large expatriate vote swells the turnout in Iraq's elections

TEHRAN -- Thousands of Iraqis voted in Iran yesterday, turning out in force to back Shi'ite parties seeking to maintain their dominance in Iraq's legislature.

Officials said participation among Iraqi expatriates in 15 nations worldwide has exceeded expectations. The turnout could foreshadow the vote in Iraq, with the Sunni Arab minority vying for a larger presence in the legislature.

In Iran, where some 100,000 Iraqis live, most of them Shi'ite Muslims with painful memories of oppression under President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, voters vowed to maintain the power that Shi'ite parties have held since Hussein's fall.

Many appeared to have supported Shi'ite leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the largest party in parliament, who spent years in exile in Iran leading militiamen against Hussein's Ba'ath Party.

''We all voted for al-Hakim's group. If his group wins, Iran and Iraq could be united and defend Shi'ites' rights in any corner of the world," said a shopkeeper, Najaf Kamal, 53, who entered a Tehran polling station with his wife and four adult children.

Ties between Iraq and mostly Shi'ite Iran have grown closer since Shi'ites -- who make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population -- gained a majority in the legislature in January elections.

The new warmth has only fueled alienation among some in Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who resent the loss of their power, feel discriminated against by Shi'ites and are deeply suspicious of Iran, against which Hussein's regime fought a bloody 1980-88 war.

In a sign of those suspicions, rumors swept Baghdad yesterday that a tanker truck filled with thousands of blank ballots had been smuggled into Iraq from Iran. The election commission denied any smuggling attempt.

Sunni Arabs largely boycotted Iraq's January elections, leaving them with only a minimal presence in the interim legislature. Now the community is pushing for a strong participation to build up their political influence.

Higher participation in expatriate voting, which began Tuesday in Iraq's neighbors, Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia, appeared to reflect intense interest in the elections.

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