Tensions high among some unemployed Iraqis

Out-of-work population frustrated with U.S. efforts

December 14, 2003|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Morning after morning, they arrive in ragged ones and twos, until dusty plazas across the city are clogged with one of Iraq's most volatile populations: the unemployed.

To understand many of the tensions shaping Iraq more than seven months after the United States took control, there is perhaps no better place to begin than with the teeming open-air job markets for day laborers that illustrate a startling statistic: As much as 50 percent of the work force remains unemployed.

As Iraqis will tell you, salaries were paltry and the work was vapid in Saddam Hussein's controlled economy, but at least jobs were reliable. For many, the new plague of unemployment has come to symbolize not just economic disarray, but a fundamental gap between American promises and Iraqi reality.

The unemployment problem contributes to and reflects Iraq's most vexing problems. It produces legions of idle and angry young men who Iraqi and U.S. officials say make willing recruits for unrest or resistance. It reflects a land still so unsafe that foreign firms have been slow to launch job-creating projects. And it feeds a mounting strain between new haves and have-nots, as the middle class prospers in the market economy.

"It is a serious situation," said Nouri Jafer, a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. "The idle [hands] are being pushed to illegal ways. Our big concern is how do we get control and find a solution."

With no firm statistics available, Jafer estimates that 50 percent of the nation's working-age people are unemployed. Lt. Col. James Otwell, the senior American adviser on labor issues, counters that the percentage is "somewhere in the 30s."

Either way, it doesn't take precise figures for Iraqi and U.S. officials to agree with a joint report released in October by the United Nations and World Bank on the rebuilding of Iraq. "This large [unemployed] population can either become a source of serious instability if joblessness persists or a considerable boost to Iraq's economic growth," the report said.

Like so much of postwar Iraq, the employment picture is mixed. The standard of living is rising rapidly for many Iraqis. Salaries have increased tenfold for police officers and teachers, giving many people their first access to satellite dishes, dishwashers and luxury cars. But so far, millions of others are not rising with the tide, and that fuels resentment.

"You have to look at who is getting the purchasing power," said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior adviser in the Iraqi National Congress, a leading political party. "Because for everybody else, the only part they see is inflation. And that leads to problems in the streets."

The U.S.-led occupation authority has provided a limited infusion of jobs with 300,000 people hired for short-term work cleaning canals and picking up trash, and will continuing hiring for the new Iraqi security services to reach 220,000 people by the summer.

Despite calls in the United Nations and World Bank report for a campaign of "make-work schemes" in agriculture and reconstruction, the coalition instead chose to hand cash assistance to many of those out of work.

Other U.S. policies added to the unemployment. L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, dissolved the 400,000-member Iraqi army, and at least 20,000 more Iraqis were fired from middle and senior management posts in a campaign to remove Baath Party members from authority.

The United States maintains that the moves were necessary to close the book on the former regime. But many Iraqis disagree. They say firing the military unleashed a pool of seething young men with, in some cases, little more than a one-time $40 severance payment.

"They should have embraced us," said Sami Abbas Darwish, 37, a former air force technician who, like others with enough rank, still receives a paycheck from the U.S.-led coalition. "Now we do not have jobs, and we are not respected by the people or the government. So in return, some people now have turned against the Americans."

The coalition says its long-term jobs plan will bear fruit soon. By the end of the month, there are to be 11 training-and-employment centers across the country, with 17 more scheduled to open next year.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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