DEARBORN, Mich. — When Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq, Sajad Zalzala was a toddler -- too young to walk by himself in the streets of Baghdad, but old enough to sense that he lived in danger.
Relatives and neighbors routinely disappeared. Sometimes, their corpses were returned, tossed in the street.
The Zalzalas settled in the U.S. in the early 1980s and moved to this sprawling suburb of Detroit, home to the country's largest concentration of Iraqis. They stayed in touch with family in Baghdad, and never lost hope that they might someday see a leadership change.
"For years, my family has wanted to do something about the political situation there," said Zalzala, 23, a medical student at Wayne State University. "Finally, we can."
As anticipation grows over Iraq's first competitive election in more than 50 years, residents here say they have been scrambling to get ready for the Jan. 30 vote.
Muslim and Christian leaders in Dearborn have been meeting regularly to figure out ways to help their communities stay up-to-date on the election, in which more than 230 candidate slates are vying for portions of the 275-seat transitional national assembly. Internet chat rooms and e-mail groups dedicated to updates about the voting process abound. At cafes, huddled over checkerboards and cups of thick Turkish coffee, residents vigorously debate the pros and cons of each candidate.
"This is a pivotal point in history," said Sam Yono, an activist with the Iraqi Christian community.
The political buzz in Dearborn began in November, when the Iraqi electoral commission announced it would allow expatriates to vote. In the weeks that followed, some political watchers predicted ballots cast outside Iraq could sway the election's outcome.
Part of the reason is the sheer size of Iraq's expatriate population.
There are about 4 million Iraqis living outside their country; at least 150,000 Iraqis reside in the United States. Political experts estimate there are between 50,000 and 80,000 Iraqis in Michigan -- the majority around Detroit and surrounding suburbs -- though they point out that only a portion of the population is old enough and eligible to vote.
In Iraq, about 14 million already have been registered to vote in a nation of 25 million.
The expatriates don't have the same safety concerns as their relatives in the Middle East, where violence has been intensifying. Election workers and political candidates have been assassinated, and car bombs in Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad have killed dozens of civilians in recent weeks.
The election is open to Iraqi citizens, ages 18 or older. Because Iraq recognizes dual citizenship, the foreign-born children of expatriates also are eligible to vote. Between Jan. 17 and Jan. 23, voters must go to one of five cities to register. They must provide photo identification and proof of either their -- or their father's -- Iraqi citizenship.
Voters will then need to return, with their registration papers, between Jan. 28 and Jan. 30 in order to cast their ballots.
Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Nashville are the five cities that will have polling stations, according to officials with the International Organization for Migration, a nongovernmental group chosen by Iraq's electoral commission to organize the effort.
Mail-in and absentee ballots will not be allowed because of concerns about fraud, said Monique De Groot, spokeswoman for the Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program.
The timing -- and lack of absentee ballots -- forced Jamal Rubaii to make a difficult choice. The 46-year-old engineer from Dearborn could vote or make the hajj, his annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
The trip to Saudi Arabia, considered a sacred rite, had been set for months. But when he called his family in the Middle East, what he heard about life in Iraq made him cringe: The electricity works an hour, maybe two, each day. Water supplies are irregular. Lines to buy gasoline stretch out for 15 hours, in a country that's a major oil producer.
"My family sees that the only hope is the election," said Rubaii, who left for Saudi Arabia this weekend. "Our leader tells us that we must vote. But hajj is important. It is an untenable choice."
Political factions in Iraq and in Michigan see the ballot box as a means of shifting a power base held by the minority Sunni Muslims who were favored under Hussein's regime.
Many Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60% of the Iraqi population, are rallying their people everywhere to vote.
At one grocery store on Warren Avenue, Dearborn's main thoroughfare, a wall is decorated with posters featuring Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric -- along with his October religious ruling that all Iraqi citizens must register and vote.
For the Zalzalas, nothing will keep them from the voting booth: Layla Aljawad, Sajad's 63-year-old aunt, plans to run for a seat on the assembly.
Once elected, the assembly is expected to select a central government and write a constitution.