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Iraqis split on whether upcoming elections can bring meaningful change

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Iraqis will vote this Sunday in an election for which many gave their lives. The vote was prompted by mass protests starting two years ago against a system rife with corruption and mismanagement. Security forces and militias linked to powerful political groups killed hundreds of those protesters. But NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad reports that Iraqis are split on whether the vote will bring change.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM POUNDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At Baghdad's Tahrir, or Liberation Square, on a recent sweltering hot day, hundreds of protesters bang a drum and honor the fallen members of their movement.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

SHERLOCK: "Oh, Hussein, we will not forget them," they chant, invoking the name of a historic figure from Shia Islam. The movement began two years ago, when desperate Iraqis in Baghdad and across the south took to the streets to demonstrate against poverty and poor public services in a country that should be rich with oil money. Their protests were dangerous. Security forces and militia groups frequently responded with violence, killing some 600 people.

MUSTAFA RASI: It's very sad because my father and brother, it's - they are now killed, OK?

SHERLOCK: I'm so sorry.

RASI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Mustafa Rasi, a medic, says his father and brother were among those shot in the protests. He himself was arrested for a week.

RASI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: But, he says, "a better Iraq is worth people sacrificing themselves for." Eventually, the protesters succeeded in forcing out the prime minister and triggering these elections under a new election law. The new system allows voters to choose specific candidates instead of broad party lists. It's meant to make politicians more accountable and reenergize a voting process that has suffered from low turnout and fraud.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

SHERLOCK: Roadsides are crowded with campaign posters for the 3,249 candidates. The government has brought in hundreds of election observers from the United Nations and European countries. Top clerics have called for people to vote. For Iraqis, like 29-year-old Mohammad Abdel Saher, this is an opportunity to try to bring change.

MOHAMMAD ABDEL SAHER: (Through interpreter) The protests happened so that we could see change in the elections. So now the elections matter.

SHERLOCK: Saher works in a bicycle store where he's paid only $14 a day. Sometimes when he doesn't sell bikes, he earns nothing at all.

SAHER: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says he wants to vote for someone who will focus on public services, like electricity and water, and says they must be a new voice in politics.

SAHER: (Through interpreter) The old parties and the old rulers, we know them now. We tried them, and they didn't change anything.

SHERLOCK: But many Iraqis don't expect change now, either. In fact, many of the protest groups who risked so much for this vote are now calling for a boycott of the elections. They say it still favors the current powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

SHERLOCK: Back in Tahrir Square on a recent day, protesters chased away a candidate who'd come to campaign.

ADRA SULTAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: One of the protesters there is Adra Sultan. She's a nurse who helped treat wounded protesters in the past.

SULTAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: She says some of the party's running in this election are the same that oversaw the deaths of so many protesters. She believes they should be banned from running, and she says the electoral system still doesn't do enough to bring in new people to power. The election law does still heavily favor big, established parties, the status quo and possibly a return of the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to power.

SULTAN: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Still, Adra Sultan says with the blood of its martyrs, the protest movement has brought some changes, like ousting a prime minister. She says they'll keep pushing for more but not through this election. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "MOSSBRAKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.