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Iraqis will vote for a new parliament on Sunday

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Iraqis vote for a new parliament on Sunday. They've had several elections since the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. This one was supposed to be a little different. This election was called as a concession to anti-corruption protesters, many of whom lost their lives calling for a more fair system. While some new voices have emerged, it looks like the usual parties will win again. Here to tell us all about it is NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad. Ruth, hello?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTINEZ: So Ruth, can you just lay out what choices are facing Iraqis in this election?

SHERLOCK: Well, the first thing to say is there's a huge number of candidates 3,249 people running for just 329 seats. You see election campaign posters, crowding roundabouts and roadsides here. But most of these candidates are from political groups that have largely been in power here since the days after the U.S. invasion. And there are a minority of new independent parties. As far as U.S. interests are concerned, there are political groups here that are backed by Iran who are calling for the ouster of U.S. troops. So the U.S. is going to be watching carefully to see how strong their vote is.

MARTINEZ: Now, starting a couple of years ago, there was a big protest movement for reform. How does that figure into the vote?

SHERLOCK: Well, some 600 protesters were killed by security forces and militias in the weeks that they spent calling for an end to this chronic government corruption here. And in those protests, they did manage to actually oust the prime minister and trigger these elections with a new law. This new law is trying to make politicians more accountable because it allows Iraqis to vote for specific candidates instead of party lists. But the thing is that many of these protesters say it doesn't go far enough. And they're actually now calling for a boycott of the system of the election that they risked so much to get because they think that the system is still set up in a way that the old parties will still win again. The thing that many Iraqis really want here are politicians that actually focus on dealing with a crumbling infrastructure and terrible public services here and focus on the public good. I followed one candidate, Taghrid Alkhazali, who seems to be trying to do just that. She was handing out flyers in a slum neighborhood of Baghdad. We walked down this poorly lit dirt road. And one of the first residents she spoke with was immediately suspicious.

TAGHRID ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He's telling her, politicians always come here at election time. And then we never see them again. There's never any help.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We're a new movement, Alkhazali tells him. We're also not satisfied with this situation. Alkhazali is an employee in the sewage department of Baghdad's municipal council. She says she's never even voted before. But now she's one of 19 electoral candidates for a new political party whose name translates to I'm Taking My Rights. She speaks through our interpreter, Awadh Altae.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

AWADH ALTAE: So she said, our program is to focus on the infrastructure, health system and education system.

SHERLOCK: In a country that should be rich with oil money, Iraqis are forced to live with a crumbling health care system, power cuts and intermittent water supply. Jobs are hard to find. And much of this is due to government corruption and political parties that prioritize patronage, giving jobs and state funds to their members, over the public good.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: As I speak with Alkhazali, an elderly lady, Najiha Dhaher, comes up and interrupts.

NAJIHA DHAHER: (Speaking Arabic).

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "Look at our situation," she tells Alkhazali crossly. "And you expect us to vote for you?" We're standing on a street that's flooded by waste water mixed with sewage. The putrid pools come right up to the doors of people's homes and to the front of resident Najiha Dhaher's grocery store.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

DHAHER: (Speaking Arabic).

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

DHAHER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: This is not normal. It's no way to live. There are children on the street, Dhaher says. Alkhazali promises that in two days' time, on Sunday, she will bring trucks to clear away the sewage.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

DHAHER: (Speaking Arabic).

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Two days later, on Sunday, we go back to see if Alkhazali has kept her promise.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Hello.

We find her there dressed in a leopard-print shirt, trousers with leopard-print stripes and bright-gold shoes. And behind her are two trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS RATTLING)

SHERLOCK: Workmen open the manhole from which the sewage and wastewater spill onto the street and get to work. Trucks have arrived, sucking up the sewage. The smell is violent. It makes you gag. Slums like these rarely receive government services. Residents say they usually have to pay privately to have the sewage taken away or electricity lines fixed. Alkhazali says the city usually focuses on wealthier areas. Sometimes residents there pay bribes for services.

ALKHAZALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But even before now, Alkhazali has been focused here in this slum. She's called in favors with bosses to bring in bulldozers to smooth the dirt roads and to turn the water on after it was cut.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

SHERLOCK: As workmen shovel the street, Najiha Dhaher, the resident who shouted at Alkhazali two days before, comes barefoot out of her shop and enthusiastically sweeps the dirty water into the open manhole.

She's got a really big smile today.

ALTAE: (Speaking Arabic).

DHAHER: (Speaking Arabic).

ALTAE: She's thanking Ms. Taghrid about what she's doing here.

SHERLOCK: You know, the problem is that this kind of politics is no match for the big parties. This is a win for residents of this slum on this day. But very few candidates like Alkhazali actually have the funds or influence to get into parliament.

MARTINEZ: If that's the case, is this election going to be viewed as a failure by Iraqis or by the international community?

SHERLOCK: Well, look; there's a disconnect there. So the U.S. would be happy if the current powers, essentially, remain in office because that's the kind of stability that averts a crisis for President Biden to deal with. And it allows them to keep some U.S. troops here in some form and to continue doing business with Iraq. And Iran, the other power here, is happy to have their militias continue to have influence in government. But this isn't what many, many, many Iraqis want. They want to have a better life. They want a government that actually focuses on public services and building a better, safer country for them to live in.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad. Ruth, thanks a lot.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "LETTER 3. RUNNING BOY - FUAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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