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Iraq’s young prepare to inherit a war-scarred nation after U.S. withdrawal

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baghdad — In a darkened room on the second floor of a government building, 100 young Iraqis conspired to revolutionize their country.

School curricula should employ interactive Internet games to stimulate learning, said a 28-year-old Web developer.

April 1 should be a cultural holiday to promote Iraq’s bygone status as a cradle of intellectualism, said a 23-year-old government employee.

Women should harness social media to bridge the gender gap, said a 22-year-old activist.

And on it went, a parade of young people auditioning for a prestigious conference. Each shared hopeful but vague ideas that envisioned a rosy future beyond Iraq’s turbulent present. The unspoken challenge, though, was turning dreams into plans, and notions into demands.

“We are free, and this could not have happened without the U.S. But now we are fighting to grow,” said civil engineer Abdul Ghany, 27, a volunteer organizer. “Not many young people know what they want, exactly.”

They do know what they feel. Their country was turned upside down by the American-led invasion in 2003, and now Iraq’s young — their worldview indelibly shaped by a U.S. military presence that ends next month — are preparing to inherit a nation that still struggles to right itself.

Some young Iraqis say they are glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein but feel less safe — and therefore less free — than before 2003, a sentiment reflected in dozens of interviews in eight provinces.

They view their government as a pseudo-regime that deprives them of basic rights, and they worry that their peers are being lured into the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. They think the world is fixating on revolutions in other Arab countries while ignoring a rotting democracy in Baghdad and their generation’s struggle to live the freedom that was promised to them 81 / 2 years ago.

“Our generation has seen enough,” said Baghdad resident Mustafa Hamza el-Ebadi, 21, who will graduate this spring with a degree in communication and engineering and wants to move to the United States. “When we were kids, there were economic sanctions. When we were teenagers, there were bodies in the street. And now there is no space to live.”

Growing up at war

About half of Iraq’s 33 million people are 19 or younger, and no Iraqi born since Saddam came to power in 1979 has known the country to be without war or dictatorship.

Iraqis in their late teens and 20s “grew up in a very dangerous climate” that did not foster a “civilian mentality,” according to Abduljabbar Ahmad Abdullah, dean of the political science college at the University of Baghdad.

“The political socialization of that individual is not correct,” Abdullah said over tea in his campus office in October. “Every student belongs to his clan, not his country.”

When Iraqis talk about the fate of the younger generation, they use expressions similar to “crossroads” and “tipping point.”

“We are at a very critical period, with the deterioration of security and the elevation of corruption,” activist Hanaa Edwar said at a September peace festival in Baghdad’s Zawra Park. “Elections are not enough. We need active participation from young people. They are not yet polluted by politicians. They need more than hope. They need to be empowered.”

Over the past year, Rutgers University political science professor Eric Davis has conducted multiple focus groups of hundreds of Iraqis between the ages of 12 and 30. Broadly speaking, they said that they view sectarianism as damaging to their future and that they prefer not to belong to a political party. Most said that their lives have improved “somewhat” or “not much” since the U.S.-led invasion but indicated that they would not leave the country if given the opportunity, according to discussions compiled by Davis, a former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers.

The problem, according to Davis, is that the economic and political structures are rigged to exclude most Iraqis, especially the young. Iraq ranks No. 175 of 178 as one of the world’s most corrupt countries on a list compiled by Transparency International.

Young Iraqis “have strong scores for civic motivation but no institutional outlet for that — that’s very damning,” said Davis, who will publish his findings next year in a special report for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

‘An impossible mission’

Iraq is just beginning to grapple with the repeated traumas it has suffered. Of the 8,000 clients at the Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims — which opened in 2005 to serve victims of Hussein’s regime — one-quarter are now dealing with psychological issues related to trauma since the American-led invasion.

“Some teenagers have a kind of phobia of going out because they’ve been raised in an environment of car explosions and kidnappings,” said Yousif Abdulmuhsin Salih, the center’s project manager. “And if parents are not treated, they can transfer their psychological condition to their children.”

Violence and dysfunction are part of growing up in Iraq and, as a result, people fend for themselves, said a 29-year-old named Mohamed, who insisted his last name be withheld because he has worked for the U.S. military and fears reprisal.

Mohamed, who wants to live anywhere else but Iraq, believes his safety dwindles every day. He put his life on hold as he waits for a special immigrant visa from the U.S. government. Why buy a new car, why make home repairs, why invest in the present when he might be allowed to leave tomorrow?

“There’s no sense of responsibility and accountability,” said Mohamed, sitting on a curb in Baghdad during a break from his work at a non-governmental organization. “Everyone looks after their own interests, even myself. . . . The Americans made mistakes, but we’re the ones who started fighting ourselves. It’s an impossible mission to fix this country.”

Some young Iraqis are trying. The slogan for the first-ever TEDxBaghdad conference, a satellite version of the California-born TED conference, was “Make the impossible possible.” After the auditions last month, hundreds of Iraqis sat this month in red chairs on elaborately patterned carpeting in a ballroom of the al-Rasheed Hotel, ensconced in the heavily fortified International Zone, formerly known as the Green Zone.

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq performed. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attended. Environmentalists, musicians, philanthropists and educators touted Iraq’s limitless possibilities. Participants tweeted it as a “landmark day” and “like a dream” — a dream that, for now, needs to be surrounded by concrete blast walls and lies out of reach of most Iraqis.

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