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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.

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Almost 3 million Iraqis ages 18 to 22 will be eligible to vote for the first time in parliamentary elections. After cliff-hanging decisions on an election law, turmoil over the disqualification of candidates accused of Baathist ties, and a backdrop of election-related violence, Iraqis across the country will go to the polls on March 7.

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This is the first election held in a fully sovereign Iraq, after the United States relinquished control over security to the Iraqis last June. And it's the first national parliamentary election expected to include large numbers of Sunni Arabs – a major base of Baathist power under Saddam – who largely boycotted the 2005 vote. So it is seen as the first parliamentary vote that has a chance of electing a truly representative government.

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This should be an exciting threshold to a new future for young people. But a broad range of interviews reveal that for this generation, born into a decade of trade sanctions and raised in war, there is an overriding sense of frustration, fears 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."

There is concern that young, educated Iraqis will not vote; and that in the longer term, they will opt out of playing a role in remaking the country, says Abdul-Rizak Kathim, a sports professor at Baghdad University and a parliamentary candidate. His small party, Scientists and National Qualified Professionals, is campaigning on using Iraq's oil wealth and its technical competence to help rebuild Iraq and provide jobs for young people.

"Our mission now is to explain to young people that it's their national duty to go and vote and help write the future of Iraq," says Dr. Kathim.

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 in school or university have walked past bodies in the street to get to class or braved gunfire to take exams. The still-frequent explosions that close the roads are a regular excuse for being late.

With the fall of Saddam, they were left with a huge set of expectations that the government will be unlikely to fulfill.

"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 Maliki.

Widespread corruption has also fostered a cynicism about the political process that has persuaded many that it's not worth voting.

In the absence of family or tribal pressure to vote, many young people say they simply won't bother. Mr. Abbas, the teenage father in Baghdad's Sadr City, home to 2 million largely disadvantaged Shiites, doesn't plan to vote. The only reason he gets by, he says, is the government food rations still provided to every Iraqi – and even those are haphazardly come by.

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.