"Eew, it stinks, mom," said 28-year-old Tara Smith of the so-called "indelible" violet stain on her finger, moments after casting her vote Saturday at El Toro military base in Irvine. "Now it's turning brown.... Oh well, what are you going to do?"
Smith drove from University City with her parents, Atta and Fawzia Hilal, and sister and brother-in-law Summer and Sean Kilcoin to take part in Iraq's first multiparty election since 1954-just nine years before the coup that led to the ascent of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein.
Registered voters, some from as far away as Oklahoma, waited for up to an hour on a meandering road to enter the base. A young girl in a baby blue burqa poked her head out of the back of a black Nissan Titan, extending an outstretched fist in seeming solidarity with the long line of cars behind her.
After having the insides and undersides of their vehicles inspected, Iraqi nationals and media were admitted to the only polling site available west of the Mississippi River.
Though the ink would soon fade from voters' fingers, it was unclear how long the jubilation and general pro-Bush sentiment would last after the base had been emptied and the votes of imperiled Iraqi citizens and eager expatriates were tallied.
Voters waded through nearly 8,000 candidates, check-marking one of 111 political parties (San Diego Voter Alert: according to the posted rules, an "x" could invalidate the vote of any Iraqi national-two 20-hour trips from Washington state notwithstanding). The outcome of the elections will be a 275-member national assembly charged with drafting an Iraqi constitution.
"You have to believe in it, otherwise it won't work," Smith said of the process. "It's a start. It's something. It's better than nothing."
As expected, voters seemed largely to cast their ballots along ethnic or sectarian lines. A large crowd of people held signs in favor of the Assyrian National Assembly, slate 139 on the ballot.
"God bless Assyria from the beginning to the end of time!" shouted one woman.
A boy waiting with his mother to pass through metal detectors into the heavily guarded polling area added, "We're born in Assyria, we die in Assyria!"
Moving aside with the crowd to make way for an incoming busload of Kurdish voters, Decoam Edward Isho said he believes the elections will lead to a "new Iraq, democratic Iraq."
"Everybody can pray, everybody can vote, everybody can sing," Isho said. "It will be a free country. Thanks for Mr. George Bush, President of the United States."
"I'm 39 years old," said former Kurdistan resident Zahra Naseem of El Cajon. "It's the first time in my life I'm voting, so I feel great. We fled from Saddam Hussein."
Olga Mar-Yohana left her home in Glendale, Ariz., at 5:30 a.m. She said many Iraqis from Arizona didn't make the trip because of work or children. "Being an Assyrian, we want our name to be in the constitution," Mar-Yohana said. "Our name was neglected all through the Iraqi government."
Sargon Yousip, a 26-year-old college student from Modesto, said he had no relatives or friends currently in Iraq, but he wanted to support his Assyrian family. "We're the indigenous people of the land of Iraq," said Yousip, who voted for the Assyrian National Assembly. "This could be the last chapter of Assyrian history, or a new beginning of another chapter."
Of the ongoing insurgent violence, Yousip said, "All these fanatics, they can't stop this. There's a lot more good than evil."
"In my [former] neighborhood, there's a lot of killing going on," Mar-Yohana confided. "A lot of churches were bombed by [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi's people. He's not Iraqi. They all come from other countries and do their dirty work in Iraq."
Hajar Mustafa of La Mesa came with his parents and brothers. "It was like seven cars on the freeway with our flags hanging out, everybody honking," said the 18-year-old McDonald's employee, who voted with his family for the Kurdistani United List of Barazani and Talabani, slate 130.
Asked if the elections will make a difference, Mustafa's brother, 27-year-old Hasan Mustafa said, "Possibly. You've got Kurdish, Shiite, Turkish, Sunni-all these people want their power. I don't know what's going to happen in Iraq. I hope it's going to be a better place."
Tara Smith and her sister Summer Kilcoin were not born in Iraq, and have only visited once, in the summer of 1988. Their brother Ramzi is a Marine currently stationed in Fallujah.
Asked how they feel about the justification the Bush administration gave for invading Iraq, the sisters said it was not as important as the outcome.
"It needed to be done to get Saddam out of power," Smith said.
"Whatever the reason is," added Kilcoin.
Kilcoin's husband Sean, who is not of Iraqi descent, agreed. "Who cares if he did or he didn't" have weapons of mass destruction? "He was still a tyrant who needed to be removed."
When the Kilcoins have children, they say their offspring should be able to vote in future Iraqi elections. Only the children of men born in Iraq were permitted to vote this past weekend.
Sayed Moustafa al-Qazwini, an imam at the Islamic Education Center of Orange County, was cautiously optimistic about the election process. "We cannot expect it to be perfect," he said. "This is the very first time that Iraqis are allowed to go to the ballot box without intimidation, without fear, without imposing certain candidates on them. We hope it will be followed by other steps and we can have someday a government which really represents the aspirations of the people."
As for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Sayed said, "People are disappointed. We've been promised many things that have not been delivered.... This is the beginning of it by having an Iraqi government, which is not elected or appointed by the Americans but chosen by the Iraqis themselves. I think two or three years down the road the occupation will come to an end, hopefully."
Atta Hilal said some Iraqi expatriates in San Diego did not vote because they lack confidence in the speedily imposed process. "There are some people like this, although they are not brave enough to say it," said Atta, a retired civil engineer from the town of Kut, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. "They give another reason. They say, "Oh, I was busy and all that.'"
Hilal said many of their relatives in Iraq would probably not be voting. "They are scared; they have kids," said Hilal's wife, Fawzia. "We are doing this for them."
In the shade of abandoned buildings, women in ornate Kurdish dresses sat amongst the overgrown grass and weeds eating $12 kebob plates. Others sang and danced in a circle outside the former officer's club, where the voting took place.Asked what the dance was, a 30-something year-old Iraqi man watching on the side answered plainly, "I don't know. I'm not Kurdish."