Payday Near for Iraqi Civil Servants
Conditions here in the capital of Iraq inched a step toward normalcy Wednesday as U.S. occupation authorities announced the resumption of salary payments to the country’s 1.3 million civil servants for the first time since the war began two months ago.
The developments came on a day the American civil administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, told reporters that the process of transferring power to an Iraqi-led interim government would probably not start until mid-July, more than a month later than urged by several Iraqi political groups.
“We’re talking now like sometime in July to get a national conference put together,” Bremer said as he visited a newly refurbished correctional facility in the city.
Payments to government workers, ranging from $100 to $500 a month, will start Saturday, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the U.S.-led body in charge of rebuilding the country.
Garner, who was replaced by Bremer earlier this month as the senior American in Iraq, said the money would be disbursed as cash payments through two Iraqi banks, much as it was during the reign of Saddam Hussein.
Uniformed military personnel and members of the Iraqi intelligence services would be excluded from receiving the payments, as would anyone who had served in the upper echelons of Hussein’s Baath Party.
The funds will come from the $1.7 billion of Iraqi assets frozen in the United States, Garner said.
Except for a one-time emergency payment of $20 made to civil servants earlier this month and a $40 payment to some pensioners this week, the disbursements beginning this weekend mark the first income since March for many middle-class Iraqi families.
As such they are expected to ease -- at least somewhat -- the discontent and public frustration at the near-desperate living conditions, especially in Baghdad. They are also expected to give a jolt to the country’s shattered economy.
“We’ll begin making our first salary payments to civil servants in Baghdad, then into the rest of the country,” Garner said.
In addition to salaries, each worker will also receive a second emergency payment of $30.
U.S. officials said resumption of the payments took longer than expected, partly because of uncertain payroll records but also because of distortions caused by a complex combination of perks and bonuses that in many cases accompanied the salary.
Garner spent the morning at a makeshift chamber of commerce made up of businesspeople from a Shiite neighborhood that until recently was known as Saddam City. He was there to assure regional leaders that the civil servants’ salaries would be paid.
He said inadequate records had complicated paying the public employees.
“We knew there were about 2 million people, but we didn’t know what their names were, we didn’t know what their grades were, and we didn’t know their salaries,” Garner told the businesspeople.
In part, the original $20 emergency payment to government workers served as a lure to register those who came to collect, U.S. officials said.
In Baghdad and in central and southern Iraq, workers’ salaries will be paid in Iraqi dinars that still carry Hussein’s image. Employees in the north, where Kurds have exercised virtual autonomy in recent years, will receive so-called Swiss dinars circulated there and printed in Switzerland.
The $30 emergency payment will be in dollars.
While some formerly privileged groups, such as pilots for state-owned Iraq Airways, will receive less money, other poorly paid employees will receive substantial increases, officials said.
Teachers’ income, for example, will increase fourfold to the equivalent of $100 per month, while the salaries of regular police will also jump.
In another encouraging indicator, uniformed traffic police took to the streets in force here, although in most parts of the city intersections remained unmanned and traffic lights either ignored or without power.
Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is the senior U.S. advisor at the Interior Ministry, told reporters that Baghdad would need more than the existing 8,000 officers to maintain order in the city of 5 million people.
Bremer’s comments about a mid-July start of the transition to civilian power are certain to heighten tensions between the American occupation authorities and Iraqi political groups waiting to gain control of the country.
Bremer and those around him are negotiating with the groups, not just on the terms of a hand-over to an interim government but also on broadening the representation of those Iraqis who will choose the government.
Most of the large groups have resisted that move, aware that additional voices would mean a dilution of their own power.
“We want a government that is representative of all Iraqi people,” Bremer said. “That’s the process we’re in now.”
Tension between the two sides surfaced earlier this week as some Iraqi political groups publicly pressed U.S. authorities for a swift transfer of political power.
“We reaffirm the immediate need for an interim government run by Iraqis as soon as possible,” Iraqi National Congress spokesman Entifad Qanbar said at a news conference in the capital. “Iraq must be run by Iraqis. You can’t leave a country like Iraq without a government.
“People will take the law into their own hands,” he said. “This isn’t in the interest of the United States. You knock on any door and the people will say they want a government.”
Times staff writer John Hendren contributed to this report.