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How newly elected Alaa al-Rikabi wants to reform Iraq


Last week's parliamentary elections in Iraq resulted in some surprising winners. For the most part, yes, the large political parties - the ones with money and militias - won the most seats. But there will be a few new lawmakers from a party that's been fighting corruption and for better public services. Their protests helped prompt a more open election system. NPR's Ruth Sherlock sat down with the party's leader to ask what they plan to do with their new power.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Newly elected Alaa al-Rikabi lives in a neat, modest home in the poor southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Canary birds chirp from a cage by the entrance.

Lovely birds.


SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

It's the day after election results were announced, delivering Rikabi's political party, Imtidad, nine seats in the new parliament. Nine out of 329 seats might not sound like a lot, but in Iraq, where parliament has been dominated by establishment politicians, even Rikabi himself seems a little surprised by the result.

AL-RIKABI: Well, our plan was to fight even with one seat.

SHERLOCK: Rikabi is a doctor in his 40s with a gentle but serious demeanor. His party was formed out of mass protests in 2019. They called for an end to government corruption and for better services like health care and electricity. He treated some of the wounded as more than 600 people were killed by militias and security forces in the weeks of demonstrations.

AL-RIKABI: This is the Iraqi situation. We are fighting against political parties that are most likely political gangs and militias. They are deeply rooted. They have financial efforts all over my country. They almost steal every dollar.

SHERLOCK: Rikabi reels off figures about Iraq's wealth - sometimes $100 billion in annual oil revenue, yet extreme poverty continues.

AL-RIKABI: Until now, we are now in 2021, and the only source of water in a village can be a well. It's insane. We are living in a country that is one of the richest in the world.

SHERLOCK: Rikabi wants his party to be a fly in the ointment, exposing corruption by the main political powers. In parliament, he can demand answers from government ministries.

AL-RIKABI: By law, the minister himself cannot say, no, I will not give you any information. He cannot say this. And I can bring him to the parliament to investigate with him.

SHERLOCK: And he vows his and his colleagues' silence cannot be bought.

AL-RIKABI: They cannot give me or my colleges (ph) - take this $1 million, take a helicopter in Jordan, take this villa in Paris and close this file. They cannot buy ourselves by this money.

SHERLOCK: It's a dangerous ambition. In Iraq, people are regularly assassinated for less bold statements than the ones Rikabi makes in our interview.

AL-RIKABI: We are living in a continuous threat. We can be - die now every day in any time. It's now quite usual for me and for my family. They are expecting me in any time, once I get out for anything, that I may not come back alive.

SHERLOCK: Ultimately, Rikabi's party wants to change the very structure of Iraqi politics. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq's top political posts have been apportioned by sect and ethnicity. It's meant to share power, but Rikabi says, ultimately, the system actually encourages corruption and division.

AL-RIKABI: Sectarian system is problematic and encourage - you are Shia. You are Sunni. You are Arabic. You are Kurdish. You are Turkman. You are Yazidi - it will encourage this. And it will be a problem that cannot be finished or end.

SHERLOCK: Rikabi wants instead a political system where the public votes directly for a prime minister or a president no matter their sect.

AL-RIKABI: Just like the American system, just like the system in most of the European countries.

SHERLOCK: This is also a call that's becoming popular among Iraq's large younger generation. Rikabi says he knows it's a major challenge that requires more seats in parliament. He's reaching out to other smaller, independent political parties that won seats to collaborate, and he's already making plans for the next election in 2025 if, he says, he survives that long. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Nasiriyah, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.