One young voter hopes Iraq election will right wrongs

A Sadr City youth hopes the Iraq election is a way to leapfrog connections and bribes to get justice.

Jane Arraf
"It was good they got rid of Saddam, but now we have 1,000 Saddams," says Youssif Mukhtar a 20-year-old high school student who will vote in the Iraq election March 7. His brother went missing under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and what motivates Youssif to vote, he says, is fighting injustice.

Youssif Mukhtar wants to right the wrongs of the injustice he sees around him. But first he has to get through high school.

Like that of many Iraqis whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the war, his education has been a patchwork of interruptions. At 20, he's in 12th grade, traveling across town after school to a job as a temporary guard at the Electricity Ministry.

In 1995, Youssif's brother went missing. Though the family searched for him for a year, he was never found. In the chaos, Youssif says, they "forgot about me," failing to enroll him in first grade on time. He later failed another grade.

One of 12 children, Youssif is finishing the last year of high school with his 19-year-old sister, Miriam. Schools are so overcrowded that the family pays a private tutor to come to their home to make up for the lack of instruction. Through it all, Youssif's childhood goal of becoming a lawyer has remained intact.

"I want to provide justice for the victims of injustice," Youssif says.

He believes that justice can also come through political power – part of the reason he plans to vote for the Sadr movement – the gathering loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has become a voice for the disadvantaged and dispossessed.

Twelve people share the family's 1,500-square-foot house in Sadr City, the poor, largely Shiite suburb of more than 2 million on the outskirts of Baghdad. On one of the concrete walls is a framed photo of Youssif's elder sister Mayada and her graduating class. She finished law school three years ago but hasn't been able to find a job.

"It's because she doesn't have wasta," he says, using the word for connections. "We're not members of any party.... It's the quota system, it destroyed the world."

Under that post-Saddam Hussein, US-fostered system, government ministries were divided among the most powerful political parties. Some ministries made it difficult for Iraqis from the "wrong" party or religious sect to get jobs.

In the warmth of a kerosene heater on a mat on the floor, Youssif gives a passionate explanation of why he wants to follow the difficult road to try to become a lawyer.

"Everyone has to be allowed their rights," he says. "First I would get rid of the quota system." Second, he says he and his friends would help people who didn't have the connections or the money for bribes needed to get even the simplest bureaucratic tasks done. "And, of course, I would never forget about the city," he says of the tangle of overcrowded houses and streets showing the legacy of decades of neglect.

Youssif and his family are religious followers of Mr. Sadr. A photo of the young Shiite leader, its frame draped in a garland of plastic roses, hangs in the bare front room.

Youssif says he reveres Sadr because he is a descendant of the prophet and because he has continued the activist path that his assassinated father forged before him.

Although he doesn't belong to the Sadrists' political organization, Youssif says he plans to vote for candidates recommended by the Sadr office. The Sadrists, he says, have proved that they can provide services and control security.

"We tried choosing candidates ourselves but they didn't serve us at all," he says. "The most important thing for a candidate is that he should live among the people who elected him and not abandon us after he becomes well off. This happened a lot after the first elections," he says of the 2005 parliamentary elections, seen as a practice run for this one.

The US invasion, he says, was a double-edged sword: "It was good they got rid of Saddam, but now we have 1,000 Saddams," he says of Iraqi politicians.

The future is unknown, he says: "One day ... there are lists of people banned from elections, and the next day it's reversed. One day they implement the Constitution, and the next day they don't. We hope and wish that something will come about but it's all unclear."

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