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

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In a country with an insurgency fueled by alienation and economic necessity, that has dangerous repercussions.

"According to our figures ... 95 percent of the terrorists are uneducated and most of them are also jobless," says Mr. Akram.

Under Saddam, 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.

It's a generation that has perhaps had it the hardest. 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 cellphones were banned; and when the West – particularly the US – was reviled.

While almost 60 percent of young people believe that terrorists are the main cause of instability, close to 35 percent believe the US occupation is a main reason, according to a survey of 6,500 young people conducted by the Iraqi youth ministry and the United Nations' World Population Fund.

Isolated from the world by 13 years of sanctions and seven more of warfare, this is the first Iraqi generation to undergo a technical revolution so vast it included not just the arrival of the Internet but of commercial television and mobile phones.

It's also a generation less well-educated than its parents, and it is increasingly conservative.

In the past five years, according to UN 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.

The decline in education contributes to ignorance about some key issues. The survey showed that the vast majority of young people believe those 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.

Dr. Shabaneh says that despite the perceived differences between regions of Iraq, the survey released in January found education, job opportunities, and attitudes essentially uniform nationwide. He says that although the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north, has a thriving economy, years of trade embargoes and inter-Kurdish fighting have held back development 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.'

When it comes to voting though, in Iraqi Kurdistan, young people have helped fuel their own minirevolution. In regional elections in July, a new party challenging the established main Kurdish political blocs that have run the north of Iraq as a semiautonomous state for two decades captured a quarter of the vote, many of them from young voters weary of what they see as corruption and stagnation. In national elections though, Kurds are still expected to vote overwhelmingly for the two main established Kurdish political parties.

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