Desperation Grows in a Nation With Few Jobs

Times Staff Writer

Nearly every day, Mohammed Zwadi treks downtown and anxiously checks an updated list of men hired for coveted jobs as security guards. Each time, he leaves a little more disappointed, a little more desperate, a little more annoyed.

"It's all a big lie," said Zwadi, 30, complaining that apparently the only people getting jobs are those who paid $50 bribes.

Moments later, he and several dozen other unemployed men pressed up against a coil of razor wire surrounding the job application office. Some frantically tried to push their resumes into a manager's hands, but half a dozen police officers shooed them away. Others just gave up, cursing the manager and shaking their fists in disgust.

"This time it's peaceful," Zwadi said. "But one day things may turn bad." Behind him, another unemployed man added, "It's no wonder people are taking $500 or $1,000 to commit acts of sabotage. What are we supposed to do? I need to pay my rent."

Nine months ago, many of these young men would have been serving in Saddam Hussein's armed forces or toiling at low-paying government-supplied jobs. Today they sit stewing on street corners, hoping to earn $3 for a hard day's work demolishing a building or unloading goods from a truck.

There is a growing fear among U.S. and Iraqi officials that unemployment and the lack of well-paying jobs are making security problems worse.

"If you get the unemployed back to work, it will eliminate some of the sources of anti-coalition activity," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of American-led forces in Iraq, said recently.

Iraq's new labor undersecretary, Nouri Jafer, predicted that security would continue to deteriorate until the country confronted its unemployment. The two problems, he said, are linked in a downward spiral, each feeding off the other.

"Because people lack jobs, they are being pushed to commit crime or terrorism," he said. "That, in turn, frightens businesses away. The private sector is not going to create new jobs until there is security."

Statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that unemployment-related violence is on the rise.

* Riots broke out at unemployment lines in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul last month as hundreds of exasperated job seekers burned two cars, threw rocks and exchanged gunfire with Iraqi police. At least three people were injured, including one who was shot.

* In early October, employees who had been fired from the disbanded Mukhabarat intelligence agency protested for back pay and new jobs in front of the Republican Palace, headquarters of the U.S.-led administration. A hand grenade was thrown into the Foreign Ministry, blowing out windows and sending workers fleeing.

* Thawra, a Baghdad slum widely known as Sadr City, has repeatedly erupted in bloodshed in recent months, chiefly because of the large number of unemployed young men who have nothing better to do.

"Poverty is like a dynamite that can suddenly explode," warned Ali Khalaf, 37, an unemployed construction worker sitting on a curb on a recent afternoon.

With his trowel and sledgehammer at his feet, Khalaf was ready for work. But it was past noon, and he knew that the chances of finding any on this day were dwindling.

"No one's building anything anymore," said Khalaf, who pays 25 cents a night to sleep on the roof of a flophouse. "This is the fourth day of no work." Over the last six months, the competition for jobs has tightened, he said. Each day hundreds of men clog Baghdad, many coming from outlying cities, where jobs are even harder to find.

Only a man with a "weak soul" would resort to stealing, Khalaf said, but, "to be honest," he confided, "the majority rob." He said he once stole the windows from a government building because theft is "better than killing."

Unemployment is hardly a new problem for Iraq. During the last decade, millions found themselves out of work as the economy crumbled under international sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Engineers were forced to drive taxis to pay the bills.

But Hussein managed to keep a fragile balance with a combination of government jobs and an authoritarian rule that didn't tolerate crime. The poor were able to get by with state-subsidized housing and electricity, along with monthly ration cards for rice, sugar, tea and other staples.

After the U.S.-led invasion in March, the system cracked apart. American authorities formally disbanded the 400,000-member military and fired thousands of members of Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs. Many of the state-owned factories -- employing more than 250,000 -- shut down.

Jafer, a former professor of international law who returned to Iraq this year after spending a decade in Algeria, estimates that there were 12 million unemployed before the war and that another 1 million have lost their jobs since, bringing the jobless rate to 70% of the work force.

But statistics were never kept, he said, so he is now creating a database. Each day, nearly 1,500 people show up at the Labor Ministry to fill out unemployment forms.

Jafer hopes to eventually use the forms to match workers with jobs and establish Iraq's first benefits program for the unemployed. He also plans to open 27 job-training centers nationwide by next year.

Officials with the U.S.-led administration, meanwhile, attempted to jump-start employment this summer with a program to put 100,000 people to work in Baghdad, offering $3 a day to pick up trash, sweep streets and clean sewers. Other cities have launched similar programs.

"But it's only a temporary solution," said Mustafa Zadan, head of a local advisory council that helps administer the trash pickup program in the Baghdad district of Al Karkh. Their part of the program creates about 250 jobs in the neighborhood, he said.

The bulk of the coalition's other job-creation efforts are focused on rebuilding the army and security forces. Over the last five months, the coalition has hired 95,000 police, border guards and other security forces.

Jafer plans to stimulate job growth through a series of public-private partnerships. He wants to build dozens of residential complexes nationwide, creating up to 250,000 construction jobs.

And he is encouraging other ministries to partner with private investors to develop unused government land and properties, which he hopes will create more jobs.

The problem, he said, is there is still no money.

The residential construction program will cost $400 million. Unemployment benefits could total more than $700 million a month.

He said coalition officials have promised to give him $4 billion, 75% of which he plans to spend on job programs. But the payout is linked to the fate of President Bush's $20-billion reconstruction bill now before Congress, and the disbursements to emerge from last week's international donors conference in Madrid.

"We have projects and a plan ready," Jafer said. "But we need the money. All we have now is a promise."

Given the violence, he said, he hopes officials don't wait too long. Last week, police found and disabled a bomb planted outside his office at the Labor Ministry.

"They are even trying to bomb us," Jafer said. "But why? There are so many poor families and people in need that come here. We are just trying to help them."

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