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BAGHDAD, Iraq / BOGOTA, Colombia: Eighteen years after the US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship, an entire generation has grown up knowing only the parliamentary democracy system built in its place.

But as election day rolls around today, many young Iraqis still feel alienated from the political process and skeptical of meaningful change through the ballot box.

In 2003, as part of its strategy of debaasification, the Coalition Provisional Authority joined forces with Iraqi opponents, many of whom had spent decades in exile, to build vital state institutions almost from zero.

However, the system they built, modeled on the secular institutions of the West, was alien to many Iraqis who for centuries had conducted their affairs along tribal and religious lines and were divided along sectarian lines.

Mourtatha Al-Makhsousi, a 27-year-old unemployed graduate from the town of Kut in eastern Iraq, told Arab News: Analyze the consequences of the changes. Therefore, here we have a fragile system.

“Here in Iraq, people did not know about democracy and parliamentary systems. In addition, we are a tribal and religious community with social contradictions which cannot be controlled by a parliamentary system.

“Therefore, there had to be a religious appeal in the Iraqi constitution and parliament for people to vote. I guess a majority of Iraqis still don’t know how it works or how power is distributed.

Foreign powers, armed groups and corrupt individuals quickly took advantage of the situation and the billions of dollars in aid poured into the country, shaping a system that was, for the most part, democratic in name.

Rana, a 24-year-old law graduate, also from Kut, said: “We were told there would be democracy and change. On the contrary. We had a corrupt face; now we have many corrupt faces.

Iraqis chant slogans as they gather in Fardous Square in central Baghdad on October 1, 2021, demanding justice for protesters killed in anti-government protests in October 2020, ahead of the October 10 parliamentary elections. (AFP)

“Since the invasion and so far, we haven’t seen any real change. It’s like a mafia controlling the government. They are just a bunch of gangsters working for their own interests, from the 2003 government to the present day.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s rule of law coalition, which maintained close ties with Iran, came to dominate national affairs in the years since 2003, leaving the formerly Sunni minority behind. preeminent Iraqi and long persecuted Kurds feel excluded.

A sectarian civil war quickly enveloped the country from 2006 to 2008, followed in 2014 by the emergence of Daesh, an al-Qaeda splinter group that conquered a third of Iraqi territory in the predominantly Sunni northwest.

Once Iraqi security forces reclaimed these territories in 2017 with strong coalition air support, the country embarked on the gargantuan task of rebuilding and resettling millions of displaced homes.

The May 2018 elections were the first democratic test of post-war Iraq. But with record turnout and widespread allegations of fraud, Shia militia leaders have moved almost smoothly from battlefields to corridors of power, with supporters of the burning Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

And, after months of backstage wrangling, the victors chose mild-mannered technocrat Adel Abdul-Mahdi to form a new government.

A youth draped in an Iraqi national flag displays the gesture of victory as he stands in front of a statue of 19th century Iraqi cleric and poet Mohamed Said Al-Habboubi. (AFP / File Photo)

However, slow progress in reconstruction and resettlement, rising unemployment and gradual power cuts quickly stirred public anger, and by October 2019 tens of thousands of young Iraqis took to the streets in nationwide to demand the withdrawal of the post-2003 elite.

A violent crackdown by security forces and pro-government militias left hundreds dead and thousands injured among protesters. Although he eventually secured Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation, the movement quickly ran out of steam with the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Rana added: “During the occupation period, people could not express themselves and instead repressed their frustrations. Grievances built up over the years until people could no longer hold them back. They took to the streets angry at the lack of services, reconstruction, security and other injustices.

“The Iraqi youth became aware and were more educated, so they came out with the October 2019 revolution. They stood up against injustice and demanded the rights that were stolen under the guise of democracy and by Islamic political parties. “

In May 2020, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the former Iraqi intelligence chief, was appointed the new prime minister for the period until the national elections scheduled for the following year.

Without a clearly defined political leadership at the head of the movement, the young Iraqi demonstrators have not been able to translate their energy and idealism into an electoral force capable of realizing their demands.

Children play in front of a large poster by populist Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, in Sadr City, east of the capital Baghdad, on July 15, 2021 (AFP / File Photo)

The handful of young revolutionaries who have chosen to run as independent candidates in the October 10 election stand little chance of success against the well-oiled machinery of the Iraqi establishment parties.

Zahraa Ali, a 31-year-old freelance journalist from Fallujah, western Iraq, said: “It is not easy to participate in the democratic process here in Iraq. If you are, you will be faced with a lot of problems.

“If you participate in the elections, they will certainly create a problem for you. Iraq’s political leaders and governing parties treat it like a dictatorship. They impose their will on us.

Ali and other local activists held workshops to help educate Iraqis of voting age about the democratic process, their rights and what is at stake in Sunday’s election. “In terms of change and development, this can only be achieved by young Iraqis,” she added.

Nonetheless, few young Iraqis have much hope of dislodging the post-2003 order and its powerful militia-backed parties in the near future.

Zainab Jabar, a 24-year-old unemployed girl from Basra, said: “I boycotted the last elections, and I will not participate in them either. We already know the result, so why participate?

Iraqi Election Commission officials undergo a mock election day to test its systems ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. (AFP / File Photo)

Jabar was among thousands of young people who joined protests in the city of Basra, southern Iraq, in 2019. Despite its enormous oil wealth, Basra remains one of the most disadvantaged provinces in Iraq. by crime, poverty and decaying infrastructure.

“We will need 50 to 100 years to change and eliminate the powerful political parties in Iraq. We want the change that we demanded in our October 2019 revolution. It did not happen as we hoped, ”Jabar added.

Karar Al-Duaikheil, a law student from Basra, said: “Basra is the worst city in Iraq. He is dead in terms of services, construction, education and employment, and there are militias and uncontrolled guns in the streets. In addition, he suffers from assassinations, kidnappings, threats and arbitrary arrests.

“Unfortunately, the people of Basra do not choose the candidates they want but those chosen by Al-Maliki, Al-Sadr, Ammar (Al-Hakim) and other political actors. None of them are clean or good.

“In addition, tribal chiefs play an important role here. They get stronger, with more guns and more money. Young people do not want to select a candidate who works for his party rather than for Basra. ”

Al-Makhsousi stressed that it would take time for Iraqi democracy to fully mature and meet the needs and expectations of its young voters.

A campaign poster can be seen in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on September 14, 2021, ahead of the next parliamentary elections. (AFP / File Photo)

“We need more time to shape this democracy with our culture and our community. We are still learning. This democracy has divided us into states, regions, neighborhoods and groups in our country.

“Wherever you go, you need a special security permit. You have the impression of not being in your own country. It’s like you don’t belong to him. We do not have an Iraqi nation.

“We boycotted the elections in 2018. The result was very bad, and we had a regime with nothing. For the next elections, I will participate in order to change something, step by step. “

To this end, young people like Al-Makhsousi have the prime minister’s full support. In a recent tweet, Al-Kadhimi said: “Iraq is counting on its youth to reform. With their persistence on a better future, the elections will be a true national triumph.

“Vote for those who preserve the unity, sovereignty and unique national identity of Iraq. October 10 is an opportunity for change.

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