MARGARET WARNER: Last Friday morning -- in Dearborn, Michigan -- Imam Husham al-Husainy led prayers marking the end of Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
The imam also told his faithful of Iraqi descent that they had a duty to make a civic pilgrimage here to participate in the upcoming elections in Iraq.
IMAM HUSHAM AL-HUSAINY: Your vote will make the difference -- your vote will bring democracy in Iraq --
MARGARET WARNER: His followers won't have to brave the dangers facing their Iraqi countrymen this weekend. The Dearborn Iraqis will be voting in this converted warehouse south of Detroit.
IMAM HUSHAM AL-HUSAINY: We told them to sacrifice your time, sacrifice your effort, sacrifice your money, and go to vote because voting is building your future. It's a spiritual issue and that's where the Muslims believe, combining the political issue with the faithful issue.
MARGARET WARNER: This is the largest expatriate, out-of-country voting effort ever. A U.N.-sponsored group based in Switzerland has set up polling sites in 14 countries around the world.
There are just five sites in the United States: in or near Detroit; Chicago; Los Angeles; Nashville; and Washington, DC.
There, under rules set by Iraq's electoral commission Shiites and Sunnis, Christians and Kurds who fled their homeland during Saddam Hussein's regime or earlier, may vote in Iraq's first free election in at least 50 years.
DHANYA AL-GASSID: We've never had the chance or the opportunity to vote back in Iraq so we're a little excited about this. It's new and everyone's doing it; it's awesome.
MARGARET WARNER: Even if they are American citizens -- as most are -- all Iraqis in the U.S. can vote if they can prove they or their father were born in Iraq.
Election officials say there are some 240,000 U.S. Iraqis who are eligible to vote under the rules.
But proving eligibility hasn't always been easy. This man drove from Nebraska to Chicago to register.
OFFICIAL: If you have the documents at home, you can come back with them.
IRAQI: I'm from Nebraska.
MARGARET WARNER: What's more, the rules require two visits -- the first one to register; the second one, during three days over this weekend, to vote.
Kurdish émigré Daoud Ismail took the first step last Saturday. He and four carloads of friends drove six hours to the Washington area site in New Carrollton, Maryland.
DAOUD ISMAIL: We came all the way from Connecticut about 2 o'clock in the morning; we drive all the way down here to register ourself for election of Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet by the time registration closed Tuesday night fewer than 26,000 Iraqis in America had signed up. Just 11 percent of the eligible pool.
MARGARET WARNER: Worldwide the response rate was 23 percent: 280,000 out of 1.2 million eligible. Why the low turnout?
Jim Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, got an earful recently on the program he hosts for ART, an Arab satellite network.
CALLER: We are very disappointed!
MARGARET WARNER: This caller in San Diego -- home to a large Chaldean Christian Iraqi community -- was irate at being told he had to drive to Los Angeles.
ARKAN SOMO ON PHONE: Here we are in the greatest country of the world and we couldn't arrange for a polling place? I mean give me a break; what does it take!?
MICHIGAN CALLER: How transparent are you really going to be if you allow voters only five days to register in a continent?
MARGARET WARNER: Your viewers sounded really mad.
JAMES ZOGBY: I think that there are a number of people in the Iraqi-American community, especially those who care a lot about the election, are mad: too far to travel; not enough consultation and work with them; rules set up that they just don't get; a week to travel 800 miles and then another week to come back again and travel.
And so I think they feel sort of, with a carrot dangled in front of them, they're being taunted to vote, but they're not really being helped.
MARGARET WARNER: Jeremy Copeland, spokesman for the out-of-country voting program in the United States, says his group did the best it could setting up sites in the two months' lead-time it was given. And the two-step process, he says, is dictated by international norms.
JEREMY COPELAND: We don't have a voters' list; we're starting from scratch. You have to build up that voters' list in person, and that's the only way to prevent against fraud.
After you've built that voters' list through a registration period, you have to have a display and challenge period where people can come in and challenge the names on that list.
MARGARET WARNER: Logistical problems aren't the only hurdles. Another one is the lack of voter education.
Washington restaurant owner Andy Shallal registered but is now confused about his choices.
ANDY SHALLAL: I really haven't decided whether to vote at this point because I don't know who to vote for. There are 111 different parties. There are 24 times the word 'democratic' is repeated in the names of those parties.
There's one particular party that I know I wouldn't vote for so maybe we could do it by elimination. But one party is the Party of God's Wrath Against the Infidels or something like that; that sounds like a party you might want to stay away from.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're down to 110?
ANDY SHALLAL: Yes. There's absolutely zero voter education that's being put out by the parties themselves, for example, here in the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Imam Husainy faults the election organizers.
IMAM HUSHAM AL-HUSAINY: It is their job, to educate the people so they won't be confused, to tell them who is who, what is the agenda, what does this ballot believe in. they don't have this data, they don't have this program on the Internet, they don't have this information available for us.
MARGARET WARNER: But Spokesman Copeland says his group, which has run elections elsewhere, is supposed to steer clear of the politics.
JEREMY COPELAND: That is a responsibility of each voter to get that information, to find out who they want to vote for, to educate themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you're saying that's not your job?
JEREMY COPELAND: It's not in our mandate at all, no, and I would never be in - somebody who's organizing an election, that would never be part of their job to educate voters about the actual party platforms.
MARGARET WARNER: While there's no official source, determined voters can find information explaining some of the 111 slates. On Kurdish satellite TV, on Arab news channels, and on the Internet.
But Zogby dismisses the program here as a "photo op election." He also says he's gotten calls from Iraqis who are U.S. citizens -- even office-holders -- wondering if it's appropriate for them to vote in another country's election.
JAMES ZOGBY: They've been mayors. They've been state legislators. They've been successful in all walks of life. They're officials in the Democratic and Republican Party. They're Americans. And yet they're being told you have a right to vote.
MARGARET WARNER: That concerns restaurant owner Andy Shallal. And he's also uncomfortable participating here...when many Iraqis in Iraq -- especially his fellow Sunnis -- won't feel safe enough to vote.
ANDY SHALLAL: If they cannot go to the polls, I shouldn't have to be able to go to the polls. I don't feel like I'm qualified to influence the kind of the government that they will have.
MARGARET WARNER: Recent college graduate Alia Allawi doesn't feel conflicted about participating. You're an American citizen.
ALIA ALLAWI: Right.
MARGARET WARNER: So why do you want to vote in an Iraqi election?
ALIA ALLAWI: Because I do have a sense of belonging to the country. I do think that this is home, yes; Iraq is also another home for me.
MARGARET WARNER: Mayood Balu of Connecticut isn't daunted by the inconvenience. So it didn't bother you that there wasn't site in New York or in Connecticut?
MAYOOD BALU: No, it doesn't bother me; anywhere we can go, even if it's in Alaska, we can drive all the way to there, a hundred hours! it doesn't matter.
MARGARET WARNER: But how do they know who to vote for this coming weekend? Some will vote their religious or ethnic affiliation.
Imam Husainy is urging his Shiite followers to vote for a top Shiite-led slate -- the United Iraqi Alliance -- and he insists it won't try to impose Islamic law.
IMAM HUSHAM AL-HUSAINY: We won't be like Iran because Iraq is not Iran. We are Shia, just like the Iranians and just like the others, but we believe in living as Iraqis.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet for many registering here it seems to be the very act of voting -- more than the outcome -- that matters.
Engineer Ali Al-Kouraishi of Virginia is Shiite but he's leaning toward one of the secular slates. And though he's a U.S. citizen, he's voting in hopes of making Iraq a place where his small son can one day meet his grandmother.
ALI AL-KOURAISHI: I left my country back in '77. Unfortunately because of the situation back home I never had the chance to go back. And I felt I was outcasted because of my Shiite background. And right now the opportunity came up, I never would have dreamt of this day and for me and for my child.
MARGARET WARNER: But one group of voters determined to send a political message are the Kurds.
They flooded the Maryland polling station to register on Saturday all vowing to vote for the United Kurdish slate.
JAMAL SALEH: I hope this is going to be a future for the Kurdish people because, as you know, the Kurdish people suffered for so long, for so long, so many years and I think this is the end of the suffering and I think this is the end of suffering and the beginning of the freedom and independence.
KAMIRAN BAMIRNY: It has been like more than 50 years 100 years we are fighting for this. So this is our day! This is our day. We have to prove ourself to the world. We are a Kurdish people; we are a nation!
MARGARET WARNER: Even though the low U.S. turnout means they won't have much influence on the election outcome for these Iraqi expatriates, the Jan. 30 election is a very big day.