For Iraq's young voters, a sense of hopelessness

University students in Basra in 2008
University students in Basra in 2008 Leila Fadel / MCT

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Radio host Shahad Abdul Kareem, the rhinestones on her T-shirt and sequined headband sparkling, sits in the semidarkness of the Voice of Fallujah studio waiting for the generator to kick in so she can reach out to young listeners and find out what's on their minds.

For the nearly 3 million young Iraqis who will cast their first ballots in Sunday's parliamentary elections, it's not so much about politics as the difficulties of day-to-day life. They pour out their miseries to Abdul Kareem every day.

"The first thing they mention is frustration," she says — from the lack of jobs, the lack of security and the lousy economy. One recent caller was a 32-year-old engineer who couldn't get married. Another was a young woman who hadn't been able to bathe for a week because there was never enough electricity to heat the water for everyone in the house.

"For us as Iraqi youth, we haven't seen anything nice in our life," says Abdul Kareem, who's 25 and whose name is an on-air pseudonym.

Fallujah was leveled in 2004 when U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into the city to challenge the control of Al Qaida in Iraq. For the U.S., it was the fiercest urban fighting since the Vietnam War. For Iraqis, it was a nightmare, and for young Iraqis here it still colors how they view their world.

"I wish I could continue my studies and get a degree, I wish I could travel," Abdul Kareem says when asked what she dreams of. "I wish it was like it was before, when I could go out with my friends and feel safe."

"Before" was the 1990s — the era of Saddam Hussein, a time that many remember as almost idyllic in its safety. Unless their own families were victims of Saddam's terror, the years between 1991 and 2003 held almost no threats. Young women could go out to visit their friends in the evening, families dined at outdoor restaurants until after midnight, parks were full, and life seemed less precarious

Now young Iraqis want from their leaders what any Iraqi adult wants — electricity, water, security, and jobs. Those were the expectations after the fall of Saddam and, seven years later, they remain largely unfulfilled.

For most, democracy runs far behind.

"What did we gain from the first elections?" asks Ali Khutiar Abbas, at 19 already a father of three living in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City. "We don't have jobs, we haven't seen any change in the security situation."

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Almost 3 million Iraqis ages 18 to 22 will be eligible to vote for the first time in Sunday's elections — the first voting since the United States relinquished control over security last June and the first in which large numbers of Sunni Muslim Arabs participate. Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 parliamentary vote.

But what should be an exciting threshold to a new future for young people is largely overridden by sense of frustration, fear about security, and the struggle to find their place in a country still emerging from conflict.

"A lot of young people say, 'What would it matter if I did vote?' " says Adel Izzedine, director of the Voice of Fallujah. "They don't understand that their choice will define the future of this country."

Entering their teens when the war started, young people here have spent the past seven years surrounded by chaos and insecurity. It's difficult to find any young person who hasn't lost a relative to the war or the ongoing violence — which together have caused at least 30,000 deaths. Many young people have walked past bodies to get to class or braved gunfire to take exams.

"There are still kidnappings and bombs. Can we go out safely? We can't," says Nisreen Hamad, a physical education major at Baghdad University. "At 8 p.m. everyone is inside the house. If I'm home after 4:30, everyone says to me, 'Why are you late?' "

She intends to vote, but will take her cue about whom to vote for from her father, who seems to be leaning toward Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

Widespread corruption has also fostered a cynicism about the political process and joblessness is pervasive. Abbas, the teenage father in Sadr City, says he gets by on the government food rations still provided to every Iraqi.

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Young Iraqis entering the job market have reason to worry. An Iraqi Youth Ministry survey shows that more than half of young men between 25 and 30 are unemployed. In Saddam's time, young men were channeled, largely unwillingly, into the Army. University students studied free of charge and were essentially guaranteed secure government jobs. Now, despite Iraq's oil wealth, government ministries are in a budget crisis and there is no large-scale private sector providing jobs

Now, "there are armies of jobless people," says Fawzi Akram, a Kirkuk member of parliament.

Those just entering adulthood have had it hard. The youngest were born in the era of sanctions that followed Saddam's 1991 invasion of Kuwait — a decade of severe shortages of medicine and even books; when private e-mail, satellite TV, and cell phones were banned; and when the West — particularly the U.S. — was reviled.

Isolated from the world by 13 years of sanctions and seven more of warfare, they've undergone a technical revolution so vast it included not just the arrival of the Internet but of commercial television and mobile phones as well.

They're less well-educated than their parents.

In the past five years, according to U.N. figures, the number of children in primary education has continued to decline. Girls, particularly, drop out in significant numbers with each subsequent school year. A chronically underfunded education system has led to what development experts consider unacceptably low school enrollment.

They're also increasingly conservative. A recent survey of 6,500 young people conducted by the Iraqi Youth Ministry and the United Nations' World Population Fund found that the vast majority of young people believe people who are HIV positive should be isolated from the community. Fewer than 8 percent would share a meal with them. About half believe that the Internet is a bad social influence.

"The Iraqi situation in my opinion has moved to the right in the last five years, which means talking about these issues is more difficult," says Luay Shabaneh, of the World Population Fund.

In this country women have traditionally played strong roles in the workplace, but just a little over 50 percent of young people support women working.

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The findings even held true in semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north, despite a thriving economy there.

"You cannot really distinguish the Kurdish youth from the rest of the country," he says. "Sulaymaniyah in the north is similar to Maysan in the south. It's truly Iraq.'

Still, there appears to be a residual optimism among a little over half of younger Iraqis. Of those Iraqis ages 15 to 24 surveyed, 57 percent say they are optimistic about the future. But that figure declines with age.

"When you look at the factual data — their work, unemployment, education — you have one story, and when you look at the future, you have another story," says Shabaneh. "That is to say they haven't lost hope, which for me is an important message."

Perhaps nowhere is the young people's psyche as apparent as their ambivalent attitude toward marriage.

"It's better to be single than to get married, because a year or two after they get married the men are either kidnapped or killed or arrested, " says Fallujah radio host Abdul Kareem, as she toys with the elaborate gold ring on her finger. "A girl gets married and has a child and her husband disappears from her life."

She readily lists examples: Her cousin's husband was killed last year, leaving her with three children. A friend's husband was killed in the 2004 battle for Fallujah — the friend then married her husband's brother, who last month was kidnapped and is still missing.

"She was married to him for a month," says Abdul Kareem.

(Arraf reports for the Christian Science Monitor. McClatchy and the Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)

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