Iraqi lawyer Hussein al-Ghorabi said he left his hometown of Nassiriya four months ago after an armed group threatened him over his political activism.
Now, as he moves around Iraq, he is trying to set up a political party that he and some fellow activists hope will challenge those in power whom they accuse of corruption and ineptitude.
He is one of scores of people from Nassiriya, the city at the forefront of a mass anti-government uprising in 2019, who have fled after receiving threats.
“We want to change the political class. Protesters have been asking, what can be an alternative to existing political parties? So we started to discuss creating that alternative,” he said.
At least 500 protesters were killed during demonstrations that broke out in October 2019 over jobs and poor services.
Tens of thousands took to the streets calling for the overthrow of Iraq’s ruling elite.
Activists said they were still being targeted by unnamed armed groups, especially in Nassiriya - the last area of the country where protesters still stage regular rallies - and are worried their participation in elections will be thwarted.
“We face the threat of weapons and militias. How can we freely take part in elections in these conditions?” said Muhannad al-Mansouri, a 34-year-old activist who also fled Nassiriya.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who took over as interim leader after the 2019 uprising toppled the previous government, has vowed to crack down on what he says are criminal armed groups trying to destabilise the country.
Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Saad Maan said the government was putting into action a plan to secure the safety of voting stations and address people’s complaints of violence and intimidation.
Change from within
Activists who once refused to take part in a political system they say is rigged are now looking to change that system by getting elected to parliament.
Ghorabi wants his Beit Watani (National Home) party to oppose a sectarian power-sharing system put in place after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It will focus on inclusive nationalism and human rights, he said, in a country that has been torn apart by internecine violence and political repression.
He was in the process of registering the party with Iraq’s election commission, at a cost of 36 million dinars ($25,000), and has around 2,000 members, he told Reuters.
“We want to bring together Iraqis of different backgrounds around a new Iraqi and patriotic identity.”
He hopes to garner votes from protesters and those who boycotted the last general election in 2018 over alleged vote rigging. Kadhimi had vowed to hold early elections in June.
Politicians decided to push them back to October.
Ghorabi said his party would only run in a fair vote monitored by the United Nations. Discussions are underway over the involvement of international monitors in October.
Beit Watani rejects alliances with established political figures. It says it will look at joining forces with Imtidad, another Nassiriya-based party recently founded by prominent opposition figure Alaa al-Rikabi, after the election.
Other parties are emerging which are more open to teaming up with mainstream secular politicians who they believe can help them push through reforms and stamp out corruption.
Mohammed al-Sheikh, 34, joined Al Marhala a few months ago, a party co-founded by advisers of Kadhimi.
Sheikh said it was important to get into parliament, even if that meant aligning with established politicians.
“Since 2003 we’ve had no real opposition in Iraq’s parliament ... If we don’t get into power, we want to be the opposition.”