BAGHDAD: Mohammed, 23, plays the guitar as he sits with his friends at a coffee shop in the Karrada district of the capital on Aug 6, 2021. - AFP

BAGHDAD: Kitted out and nowhere to go: Many young Iraqis in Baghdad make an effort to be hip, even as they admit their country may have no future. Take Mohammed, for example. He has set up for the night in a smoky cafe with two friends. He's 23, has serious hair and a handlebar moustache. Mohammed is a guitarist whose friends like his songs, even if his mother doesn't. And at least he has his espresso.

In Baghdad "there are very few places for young people" to go, and he feels stifled by "conservative" Iraqi society, he said. And then there's COVID. And Iraqi politics. "Society keeps boys and girls apart," Mohammed said. "By the time of university, you've had no contact with girls, so you don't know how to behave."

As for the coronavirus, like 95 percent of Iraq's 40 million people, he isn't vaccinated. The number of daily infections is running at around 10,000. Mohammed is "afraid of the virus", but like most Iraqis who gather in public spaces, he doesn't wear a mask. "But my mates are vaccinated, so that's OK," he said.

Talk turns to politics, a hated subject for those who joined the unprecedented Oct 2019 uprising against corruption and mismanagement. "I was shot three times" by anti-riot forces, Mohammed said, lifting his T-shirt to reveal a huge scar. He was one of 30,000 people wounded in the protests. Nearly 600 were killed.

At least 70 activists have been targeted for murder or kidnapping by unidentified groups. The activists believe these are Shiite militias financed by and linked to Iran. Mohammed said there is no way will he vote in the planned general election in October. "There's no future in Iraq," says the Red Crescent worker, who earns the monthly equivalent of $400.

Ahmed is 19 and agrees. Once a week, he and friends meet under the Jadriya Bridge in Baghdad, and then hit the streets on scooters. He loves social media such as Tik Tok, and doesn't dwell too much on the future. Ahmed would like to be a civil servant, but says: "It's difficult because everything goes through the 'wasta'" system - of using influence and personal connections to get ahead. His graduate brother has been jobless for three years, like two in every five young Iraqis.

Fatima is even younger: at just 17, she stands out in a conservative society for not wearing hijab head covering. She sports tattoos on her fingers, wears makeup and has pink and yellow hair. At weekends she hangs out with friends in cafes. But there are limits. Bars with alcohol and nightclubs "are not for me, as a woman and at my age".

Amer Talib, 26, enjoys wearing vintage clothing such as white linen suits and ruffled shirts. He gets together with friends at weekends to take pictures. He strikes a pose outside a rundown house on Haifa Street. In 2007, this was one of the frontlines during the Sunni insurgency. "We'd like to have a bit of support. It would be nice if Iraqi television did a report on us," Amer says. - AFP