Tackling Another Major Challenge in Iraq: Unemployment

By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 20, 2005

BAGHDAD -- On the top floor of an otherwise vacant building in a slum where flocks of sheep graze trash-strewn streets, 25 unemployed women wearing head scarves were learning to operate Chinese-made sewing machines.

Down the hall, an instructor was teaching jobless men basic word processing on computers fresh from shrink-wrapped packaging. And in another cramped room, teenage and adult students were chatting before their class in basic literacy.

The new job-training center in Baghdad's impoverished borough of Sadr City, run by the Iraqi government, is on the front lines of efforts to address one of the most pressing challenges to the country's stalled economy: unemployment.

Numbering in the millions, Iraq's unemployed have found little refuge in an economy derailed by two years of relentless insurgent attacks. Many have not had steady jobs since the United States dissolved the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion. And U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledge that every young man without work is a potential recruit for insurgents who pay as little as $50 to people who plant explosives on a highway or shoot a policeman.

"The longer this goes on, we are asking for trouble because we are breeding more and more insurgents," said Muhammed Uthman, an Iraqi businessman and former oil ministry official who serves on a panel that advises the government on reconstruction. "Unemployment is exactly what the terrorists want."

A report published last month by the government and the United Nations put the unemployment rate at 27 percent. But many experts here say the actual number is probably closer to 50 percent or more because the survey was not conducted in some of the least stable parts of the country and because many Iraqis work unreliable part-time jobs.

The Labor Ministry has registered 656,437 unemployed people across Iraq's 18 provinces -- including more than 110,000 in Baghdad alone -- but even ministry officials acknowledge that the actual number is probably several times as large. In an April poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-funded nonprofit organization, Iraqis ranked unemployment the country's second most pressing problem, behind security.

And the situation will likely get worse before it gets better, the government says. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari recently announced plans to scale back Iraq's bloated public sector, which employs as many as half of Iraq's 6.5 million workers.

In Saddam Hussein's tightly controlled economy, salaries for government workers were often paltry, but the government provided work for almost anyone who needed it. Since the invasion, salaries for many public sector workers have risen, but the new government has said it is no longer practical to employ so many people.

Meanwhile, more than 150,000 Iraqis were employed on a permanent or temporary basis on U.S.-funded reconstruction projects as of June 1, according to State Department figures.

"It's things like trash cleanup, surface removal, road rehabilitation -- the kinds of jobs that maximize employment," said a U.S. reconstruction official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If you have a choice between a backhoe and 20 guys with shovels, you use the 20 guys even if it takes longer."

In the past two months, the Iraqi government and the U.S. Agency for International Development have launched new efforts to combat unemployment through a network of training and recruitment centers in such cities as Basra, Mosul and Baghdad.

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