Iraqi youth see little hope 18 years after Saddam's fall
Eighteen years ago Saddam Hussein's brutal rule came to an end, but the prospects for young Iraqis who never witnessed his dictatorship remain blighted by insecurity, rampant corruption and joblessness.
When American troops seized Baghdad on April 9, 2003, a different Hussein was barely three years old. Living in Nasiriyah, a cradle of revolts throughout history in the country's south, he recalls people speaking of a "bloody regime".
It was one which "embroiled Iraq in wars that wasted many lives and resources," alongside crippling sanctions from the 1990s, said the political sciences student.
But today the American promises of democracy and freedom made when Saddam was toppled ring hollow, added Hussein, who did not want to give his second name, as he deplored today's "incapable" political parties and a "rotten system".
Educated initially in a small mud-brick school, since his earliest memories he has known an Iraq beset by "hospitals in ruins and zero job prospects."
Despite the country's oil wealth, the promise of a booming future has remained beyond grasp for most, especially those now coming of age.
The country has grappled with a toxic cocktail of endemic corruption and bloody sectarian episodes, culminating in the Islamic State jihadist group occupying large swathes of the country for three years from mid-2014.
Iraq remains in a state of "total collapse," Hussein lamented.
'Poor can't live'
Ibrahim, a young resident of the Shiite holy city of Karbala, was equally dismissive of his prospects in contemporary Iraq.
"The poor cannot live in this country," said the 21-year-old, who said he had "dreamt of joining the military academy".
"But I had to stop (studying) before middle school" in order to scrape by financially, and today he is stuck, still hawking pink candy floss from a small cart.
Hussein, meanwhile, has tried - with some success - to juggle both the demands of study and work, taking odd jobs from as early as 13.
These youngsters' stories are far from uncommon, as 37 percent of Iraqi children live below the global poverty threshold, according to the UN's children's agency UNICEF.
After finishing his day's university classes, Hussein rushes to meet his younger brother, the two of them hustling daily to find a trader who will give them tasks, in order to feed their seven-strong family.
He will soon become the first in the family to hold a degree. But he finds little joy in the prospect of graduating, in a country where 700,000 new graduate entrants to the job market compete for public sector employment every year.
Opportunities in the private sector are minimal, while the Saddam-era policy of guaranteeing all graduates a job became unviable long ago.
All this intertwines with devastating levels of corruption and patronage.
"It is only by joining a political party or a militia that you can get public sector" jobs," Hussein explained.
Some 60 percent of the country's 40 million people are under 25, and the unemployment rate in that age group is a staggering 36 percent. Many therefore turn to armed groups for jobs, attracted by steady salaries, even as the state regularly pays its civil servants late due to depressed oil revenues.
'Future decided by us'
Few take the option of seeking work abroad, since Iraqi degrees are treated with disdain by employers outside the country - in stark contrast to the early 1900s, when the University of Baghdad had a formidable reputation.
Hussein's determination to restore Iraq's regional credibility drives him forward, he says.
Defying tribal and wider societal pressure, he has protested regularly since the age of 16 - whenever he has earned enough to feed his family.
Protests mushroomed from October 2019, when hundreds of thousands of mainly young Iraqis took to the streets in multiple cities in a months-long mobilisation seeking to overturn the post-Saddam political class, viewed as corrupt and beholden to foreign powers.
Rawan, 18, was among those protesters, and this year fled to Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, after being threatened in her home region of Babylon.
Her story of flight has a certain unwelcome symmetry -- under Saddam, her father fled with the family into exile in Libya, only to return once the dictator was gone.
Dozens of other activists of the "October revolt" have received threats. Around 600 protesters were killed, mainly in street confrontations.
Intimidation, abductions and even killings of activists continue, despite the street protests fizzling out.
"But our generation is different, due to the new technologies," Rawan noted.
Nowadays, "we can compare what we have here with what others have abroad."
And despite the fear and the shortages, she, like Hussein, is determined to force "a change of regime".
"It is not easy. But the future of this country will be decided by our generation."