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Iraqi reform activists risk their lives to protest

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to head now to Iraq to hear about Iraqis who have risked it all to protest against the country's corruption and the lack of critical services, like medical care. Their demonstrations helped oust a prime minister and prompt the parliamentary elections being held tomorrow. But now many of the protesters, like these 20-something friends, are choosing to boycott the very election they faced danger in calling for. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Baghdad and sets out to find out why.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Mohammed Al Tamimi says he was just in high school when he decided to go alone to his first demonstration. Jumping on a bus, he didn't tell his parents where he was going. Since then, he's not stopped protesting. He's often joined by his friend, Ayoub Al Roubayi. Roubayi joined the mass demonstrations in 2019 because he says life in Iraq has just become too hard.

AYOUB AL ROUBAYI: (Through interpreter) My two brothers, one who graduated as engineer and the other as a lawyer. It took the lawyer four years to find a job. It took the engineer six.

SHERLOCK: He says this is partly because coveted government jobs are often given out as patronage to party loyalists. And then there are matters of life and death. His mother has trouble getting care for a chronic lung disease.

ROUBAYI: (Through interpreter) The health care system isn't meeting her needs. She can't always find the medicines or care for her illness. She is not getting what she needs to get recover.

SHERLOCK: Iraq's hospital system is collapsing, as are other public services. There are power cuts and intermittent water shortages. Iraq should have oil money to address these problems, but much of its wealth is siphoned off by political parties, backed by security forces or powerful militias, and they don't want the change that the protesters are seeking. They've responded with force. Al Tamimi shows us a video he took while running from tear gas fired by security forces into the protest crowd. In fact, in the weeks of demonstrations, some 600 people died in attacks on the protests by security forces and militias linked to powerful politicians. Many activists have since been kidnapped or assassinated. Al Tamimi believes he's been targeted.

MOHAMMED AL TAMIMI: (Through interpreter) Danger has become my shadow. I faced lots of kidnapping attempts. Sometimes I only narrowly escaped.

SHERLOCK: He says he's been followed and was once chased down a street by men with knives. For all this risk and bloodshed, protesters have managed to make some changes. They forced the resignation of a prime minister and triggered these early elections under a new law that's meant to make politicians more accountable. But they say these reforms are superficial, and they want parties linked to the killing of protesters to be banned. So many are now calling for a boycott of the vote. Al Roubayi.

ROUBAYI: (Through interpreter) This election is a gateway to change, but in fact, it's not going to make a difference because will be flawed by the parties in power and political assassinations.

SHERLOCK: He says intimidation has stopped many independent candidates from mounting viable campaigns against the big, well-funded parties. Al Roubayi believes given all this, it's better not to vote at all.

ROUBAYI: (Through interpreter) In boycotting the elections, we pull away the legitimacy from these political parties.

SHERLOCK: Al Tamimi looks back at his whole life. He says he's never known a happy time. He was born in 1999, just four years before the U.S. invasion that ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein. That led to a devastating sectarian war. Now, he says, his life is defined by the indignity of knowing that this country's oil money is being squandered by politicians while people suffer.

TAMIMI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says he's going to keep protesting - both for himself and future generations to be able to live in a better Iraq. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.