Young Iraqis campaigning for better services and jobs say assassinations by militants linked to Iran-backed political parties do not frighten them. At least 500 activists have been killed since a nationwide protest movement began in 2019.
Despite the constant threat of violence, some are preparing for parliamentary elections scheduled for October 10.
Intimidation is nothing new for Salah Al Suweidi, who is running as an independent in the elections for the 328-seat parliament. As an activist in the pro-reform protests that broke out in October 2019, Mr Al Suweidi escaped two assassination attempts and endured a home raid.
“We are used to targeting and killing,” Mr Al Suweidi told The National. “The Iraqi people have reached the point where death and life are equal, so we have to rise up and change our reality."
Independent candidates say the road ahead for them is tough, but they see hope in the country's new electoral law and an eagerness among the public to undermine the influence of political parties.
Iraq’s current political elite took power after the 2003 US-led invasion toppled the Saddam Hussein regime.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who took over in May last year, promised to ensure free and fair elections. But many Iraqis say that is a distant dre
am, given the rising tide of assassinations of activists and the presence of rogue militias.
“With the presence of weapons that are outside government control and political money, it will be hard to have fair elections,” said Mr Al Suweidi, who is eyeing one of 69 seats allocated for representatives in Baghdad, the capital and one of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Still, it is vital to have independent candidates in the next parliament, to start the long process for change, said the lecturer at Baghdad’s University of Al Mustansiriyah.
“If at least three independent candidates from each province reach parliament, I would consider it a success – a good achievement,” he said.
Mr Al Suweidi believes that Iraq’s problems “can’t be solved overnight, but we will need a long-term strategy that covers two or three terms to win”.
Protests that affected much of central and southern Iraq forced the previous government to resign.
When he took office, Mr Al Kadhimi initially set June 6 this year to hold early elections, but then postponed it to October 10 owing to technical requirements.
Bowing to protesters' demands, Iraq’s parliament endorsed a new law that paves the way for independent candidates to the legislative body, a move hailed as a success in a multiparty system.
Unlike previous elections, Iraq will be divided into several constituencies instead of being treated as one constituency. The former system allowed political parties to take seats depending on their share of the national vote.
The new law does not allow the political parties to run unified lists, something that helped them to sweep up parliamentary seats in a specific province. Instead, the seats will go to whoever gets the most votes in the electoral districts.
That has encouraged Rajab Al Mudhafar, an activist and resident of the southern province of Basra, to run again after failing to win a seat in the 2018 election.
“There is a golden opportunity now for independent candidates and voters who seek to change the domination of the political parties,” Mr Al Mudhafar, 45, told The National.
In previous elections, the senior engineer at the Ministry of Electricity ran as an independent candidate on the list of a newly formed political entity, as stipulated under the old electoral law.
In 2018, 6,900 people voted for him but he could not reach parliament because of the old formula for calculating votes within the list and seat distribution.
“Chances are higher for independent candidates in coming elections than previous ones," he said. "Now, the winner is the one who gets the most votes.”
Basra is divided into six districts with a total of 25 seats. Mr Al Mudhafar is running in a district in northern Basra where 33 candidates – 23 men and 10 women, are vying for four seats, one of which is reserved for women.
A total of 3,523 candidates have submitted their nominations to the Independent Electoral High Commission, spokeswoman Jumana Al Ghalaie told The National.
The number of independents are not yet known, and the number of eligible candidates could be lower after a vetting process that is expected to be completed next month, Ms Al Ghalaie said.
Of about 25 million eligible voters, about 22 million have updated their information to receive new biometric voting cards or update existing ones, she said.
An early election was one of the main demands of the protest movement hoping to overhaul of Iraq's political system. But the government’s failure to protect activists from assassination and intimidation has led to calls for the polls to be delayed, at least until they can be held securely.
Baghdad resident Bayada Ibrahim Ali, 38, said she will be protected by siblings as she vies for a place in parliament.
“My family has encouraged me to nominate myself and they will protect me,” Ms Ali said.
In 2019, she took to the streets to demand improved government services.
“I will fight for a liberal state that respects the citizen’s rights, mainly women, children and the elderly, and offers better services to all,” she said.
She said that the government and IHEC will not be able to guarantee free and transparent elections in this atmosphere, citing the 2018 elections that were mired in allegations of voter fraud and corruption.
During an event hosted by a local think tank last week, Iraqi President Barham Salih assured the public that “repeating what happened in the last elections would be an ominous omen we can’t accept”.
However, Mr Salih acknowledged that the mission will not be an easy one.
“We are facing a challenge in convincing the people with practical procedures,” he said. The IHEC was "working hard”, he said, on measures to protect the electoral process and that there would be international monitors.
“We hope that we will take real and practical procedures by the time of the elections that can assure the people that we are serious,” he said.