Iraqis risk lives in quest for jobs

Desperation sends many to square in Baghdad despite deadly bombings

December 13, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Said Rifai | Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Said Rifai,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Workers know that a trip to the square could mean death, and still they go.

Every day, laborers crowd Tayaran Square in downtown Baghdad, the scene of nine bombings in the past three years, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. With unemployment as high as 60 percent, men survive on the jobs they find there, which pay an average of $10 a day.

The latest suicide bombing attacks left at least 76 people dead and more than 200 injured yesterday, the Interior Ministry reported. The nation's leaders condemned the attack and promised to investigate, but workers complain that the government offers little relief from a cycle of poverty and violence that is pushing them toward extremism.

Ali Naji, 32, avoided the square as long as he could. He returned yesterday because he desperately needed the money. One of the bombs exploded as he watched a group of laborers eating breakfast.

"I saw their flesh shattered," Naji said.

Witnesses saw a pickup truck approach the square before 7 a.m., collect several workers and leave. A second driver soon appeared, slamming into a group of workers and detonating his car, said witness Swadi Hussein, 28. After police responded to the first blast, the pickup driver returned, drove into the patrol and detonated his truck, Hussein said.

"As soon as the first explosion happened, I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn't move," said Hussein, who sells secondhand clothes at the market on the square. "I was too shocked to do anything." Hussein blacked out and came to in the hospital with glass embedded in his head.

Interior Ministry Chief of Operations Abdul-Kareem Khalaf said the bombing was retaliation for raids this week by ministry investigators who killed 17 insurgents and detained 32 others.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the attack a "horrible massacre" and promised a thorough investigation.

Workers at Tayaran are poor, mostly Shiites. Some are professionals, college graduates who lost their jobs and businesses as Iraq's economy faltered.

They stand in the square in front of the stores that rent dirt compactors, concrete makers and other construction equipment.

Sometimes they sit at the stalls of vendors on the corner who sell them sweet tea, fried eggplant, potato sandwiches and falafel, and remember better days, years ago, when the vendors could barely keep up with the number of customers.

One day last week, the crowd included a father caring for his sick daughter, a youth trying to provide for his elderly parents and a would-be groom who wanted to be able to furnish an apartment for his bride.

As jobs dry up across the city, workers are becoming more desperate.

"The lucky ones are well off if they had one or two days work during the past two weeks," said Hussein Abdul Jabbar, 37, a former carpenter who went to wait in the square with his brother last week.

A father of four, Jabbar lives in the Shiite stronghold Sadr City. He and other workers try to stay safe by avoiding majority Sunni neighborhoods, he said, but can't afford to avoid the square.

Ali Abdul Kadhim, 21, said he ended up at Tayaran after he tried to get a job as a police officer and was asked to pay a $300 bribe. He is engaged to be married but has postponed the wedding until he can afford to furnish his bride's apartment.

"I wouldn't have to join the security forces if I had that kind of money," he said of the bribe demand as he stood at one of the small coffee shops in Tayaran Square, trying to decide whether he could afford to buy a cup of tea.

Kadhim has applied for charity furniture from the local office of the party allied with anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, which is solidifying its support through such social services.

Abdullah Latif, 36, a graduate of the Kuwaiti Fine Arts Institute, said he had applied for a job at the Culture Ministry but was asked to pay a $200 kickback. Latif, a former actor, was scrounging for jobs in the square to pay the rent on a tiny room he shares with his wife and two children.

His last job was washing cars for $1 a day, low even by Tayaran standards. But Latif is at the mercy of his employers.

"What can I do?" he said. "There is no work, and they know it."

Ali Sharhan is 47 but looks much older. He said his daughter is disabled and that he would like to take her to a hospital for treatment but can't afford to travel there or to pay the doctors.

Sharhan, who has been out of work for three weeks, said he plans to appeal to the local office of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party allied with the Badr Organization militia. Fellow workers in the square last week suggested that Sharhan also contact al-Sadr's group.

Hassan Jabbar, 40, a demolition specialist who was waiting in the square with his brother last week, said the sectarian fighting has sent his former employers fleeing overseas out of fear of being killed, kidnapped or held hostage. He blamed the U.S. and Iraqi governments for failing to stabilize the country.

"The situation before the war was much better," he said. "Work was always available, whether in the private or public sectors, and we could travel to any place without any fear."

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Said Rifai write for the Los Angeles Times.

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