To Stem Iraqi Violence, U.S. Aims to Create Jobs

By Josh White and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

As Iraq descends further into violence and disarray, the Pentagon is turning to a weapon some believe should have been used years ago: jobs.

Members of a small Pentagon task force have gone to the most dangerous areas of Iraq over the past six months to bring life to nearly 200 state-owned factories abandoned by the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Their goal is to employ tens of thousands of Iraqis in coming months, part of a plan to reduce soaring unemployment and lessen the violence that has crippled progress.

Defense officials and military commanders say that festering unemployment -- at 70 percent in some areas -- is leading Iraqi men to take cash from insurgents to place bombs on roads or take shots at U.S. troops. Other Iraqis are joining sectarian attacks because their quality of life has slipped dramatically, officials say.

Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the top U.S. field commander in Iraq, said that tackling unemployment could do far more good than adding U.S. combat troops or more aggressively pursuing an elusive enemy. He said the project to open the factories and stimulate local economies is long overdue and was born "of desperation."

"We need to put the angry young men to work," Chiarelli said in a phone interview from Baghdad. "One of the key hindrances to us establishing stability in Iraq is the failure to get the economy going. A relatively small decrease in unemployment would have a very serious effect on the level of sectarian killing going on."

The CPA initially hoped private investors would buy or lease the state factories, but that did not happen as security faltered and much of Iraq became inaccessible. As privatization hopes failed, the factories languished; some were in pristine form and others had been looted when the Pentagon task force examined them this fall. The tens of thousands of Iraqis who used to make them run -- the country's second-largest employment group, after the army -- remained out of work.

Pentagon officials say the vast majority of former Iraqi factory workers are still unemployed and are bringing in no pay. A small portion of the workforce receives government stipends, akin to welfare, but the pay system is badly flawed and provides about 20 percent of what the workers would make if fully employed, the officials said.

Economic development is a departure from the military's usual missions, but officials think the Defense Department's heft as a consumer of goods and services can boost the effort. The department has been reaching out to U.S. companies that can place large orders for products from Iraq.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England set the task force in motion in June after Paul A. Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of defense, returned from a visit to Iraq the month before.

Brinkley, who returned last night from a trip to Iraq with his team, said thousands of Iraqis lost their jobs and the ability to support their families when CPA projections dimmed. Unrest followed the absence of work.

"After three years of unemployment in excess of 50 percent, there are no people in the world that wouldn't be undergoing violence and militias," Brinkley said. "That's human nature. And I think we have to do whatever we have to do to alleviate that problem if we are going to create stability."

So far, members of the task force have visited 26 factories in some of the worst areas of the country, traveling to Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Najaf and Ramadi to inspect facilities that make cement, tile, rubber and textiles. They have identified 10 factories -- their "hot list" of facilities in both Sunni and Shiite areas -- that they think could be open and employing more than 11,000 Iraqis within the next month.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company