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Iraq election: Young war generation yearns for old stability

Three million young people voting for the first time in Sunday's Iraq election will take their frustration to the polls.

By Jane Arraf/ Correspondent / March 4, 2010

The 18-to-22-year-old generation will vote for the first time in Iraq elections on March 7.

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Fallujah and Baghdad, 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.

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In the run-up to the most important parliamentary elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein, members of this generation of first-time voters are not so much preoccupied with politics as with the difficulties of day-to-day life. Day after day, they pour out their miseries over Fallujah's airwaves.

"The first thing they mention is frustration," says Ms. Abdul Kareem, 25, whose name is an on-air pseudonym. The frustration stems from lack of jobs and lack of security. The second is the financial situation. 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 describes seeing shrapnel fly through her home before the battle for Fallujah.

Fallujah, west of Baghdad, was leveled in 2004 when US and Iraqi troops went into Al Qaeda strongholds. For the US, it was the fiercest urban fighting since the Vietnam War. For families, and teachers, and shopkeepers and their children, it was a nightmare. Whether disaffected Sunnis like those in Fallujah turn out to vote in March is key to the election's credibility and, eventually, to whether the country will hold together.

"I don't want to be too ambitious because I'm afraid that, if my ambitions don't turn out, I will be hugely disappointed," says Abdul Kareem.

Asked what she would dream of if she dared to, her guarded manner slips for a moment. "Many things," she says with a broad smile. "I wish I could continue my studies and get a degree, I wish I could travel. I wish it was like it was before, when I could go out with my friends and feel safe."

"Before" was the 1990s – the Saddam era, a time that many remember as almost idyllic in its safety. Unless their own families were victims of Saddam's terror, in between the 1991 war and the 2003 invasion, the streets of Iraq 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, life seemed less precarious

In many ways, what young Iraqis want from their leaders mirrors what any Iraqi adult wants – electricity, water, security, and jobs. Those were the most basic of expectations set up 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. I won't vote for anyone – I don't believe in elections anymore. This is our democracy," he says pointing to the overcrowded houses and teeming streets.

The eldest of seven brothers, Mr. Abbas has been working since he was 12 years old. He takes work whenever he can get it as a laborer and makes between $12 and $16 a day.

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