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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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The parliament that the March vote will elect is seen as crucial in deciding the fate of areas long disputed between Kurds and Arabs.Despite trying times, 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 are optimistic about the future. But that figure declines with age.

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"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."

For many young Iraqis, though, it is an optimism tied to the hazy vision of the distant future rather than shorter-term expectations.

That lack of expectations fosters a cynicism that would normally be surprising in young people and is rooted in a feeling that their elected leaders have done nothing for them.

"The problem is that politicians aren't honest in their promises to young people," says Abbas Kathim al-Shimari, the deputy minister of youth. A move by some members of parliament to lower the minimum age for members of parliament from 35 to 30 has gotten little traction.

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Security concerns – both financial and physical – are also causing this new generation to reconsider 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 – even until now," says the 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, and last month he was kidnapped and is still missing. "She was married to him for a month," says Abdul Kareem.

Like most residents, Abdul Kareem's family fled the city during the battle in 2004. In 2005, they were worried about security, and her brother took the family's identification papers and voted for all of them – she wasn't sure for whom. They are still worried about safety in the coming election.

She hasn't examined the list of candidates. But if she were to vote, she would vote for someone from her province, Anbar, which includes some of the most prominent politicians recently banned from running for office. She believes the reason for the ban – alleged Baathist ties – are just excuses.

In the colleges, an alarming number of students see so little future here that they want to emigrate – a trend that government officials consider a crisis.

"Our young people are leaving the country and it's a very dangerous indicator – it means that basics for a good life are lacking here," says Dr. Shimari, the deputy youth minister.

Psychologist Layla Ahmed al-Noaimi, a professor at the University of Baghdad, says she was surprised by the survey's findings that only 17 percent of young people wanted to leave Iraq.

"A lot of the young people I talk to want to emigrate in any way possible – maybe more than 50 percent," she says. "They have no security, no work, no marriage – this is very difficult for young men."

Officials fear that the combination of overcrowding, lack of jobs, and sense of injustice is pushing young people to extremism or to the fringes of society in its drug underworld.

"Let us be frank," says Shimari, "the spirit of Iraqi youth is broken, and there is disillusionment and disappointment. Their confidence is shaken because of the wars, because of the pressures of threats. This needs our combined efforts."

Common wisdom has it that the scars of the war will take a generation to heal. For many young people here, it could well be the generation after this one.•