DESPERATE, JOBLESS AND IN HARM'S WAY IN IRAQ

Times Staff Writers

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

Every day, laborers crowd downtown Tayaran Square, the scene of nine bombings in the last three years, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. But with unemployment as high as 60%, families survive on the jobs men find here -- jobs that pay an average of $10 a day.

They faced their latest challenge Tuesday, a suicide bombing that left at least 76 people dead and more than 200 injured, the Interior Ministry said. 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 Tuesday because he desperately needed the money. One of the car bombs exploded as he watched a group of fellow laborers eating breakfast.

"I saw their flesh shattered," Naji said.

Witnesses saw a driver in a pickup approach the square before 7 a.m., collect several workers and leave. Soon after, a second driver 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 a hospital with glass embedded in his head.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalaf said the attack was retaliation for raids carried out this week by ministry investigators, who killed 17 sus-pected insurgents and detained 32. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, called the attack a "horrible massacre" and promised a thorough investigation.

Workers at Tayaran, also known as Aviation Square, are poor and mostly Shiites. Some are professionals, college graduates who lost their jobs and businesses as Iraq's economy faltered over the last three years. Others are craftsmen unable to find steady work.

They stand in the square, at the intersection of Nidhal Street and the busy road leading to the city center, in front of the stores that rent dirt compactors, cement mixers and other construction equipment. Sometimes they sit at the stalls of vendors on the corner who sell sweet tea, fried eggplant, potato sandwiches and falafel and remember better days, years ago, when the sellers could barely keep up with the flow 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 last two weeks," said Hussein Abdul Jabbar, 37, a carpenter who came to the square with his brother last week.

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

Ali Abdul Kadhim, 21, a skinny youth with a fledgling mustache, said he ended up at Tayaran after trying to get a job as a police officer and being asked to pay a $300 bribe. He is engaged, but has postponed the wedding until he can afford to furnish an apartment.

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

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

Abdullah Latif, 36, a fine arts graduate, said he had applied for a job at the Culture Ministry but was asked to pay a $200 kickback. Latif, who has gray hair, thick round glasses and the fragile look of the actor he trained to be, was scrounging in the square for jobs to pay the rent on a tiny room he shares with his wife and two children.

His last job? Washing cars for a dollar a day, low pay 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 he looks much older. He said his daughter is disabled and he would like to take her to a hospital, but he couldn't afford to travel there or to pay the doctors. Out of work for three weeks, Sharhan said he planned to appeal to the local office of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party allied with the Badr Brigade militia. Fellow job seekers in the square last week suggested Sharhan contact Sadr's group as well.

Hassan Jabbar, 40, a demolition specialist waiting in the square with his brother last week, said the civil war had led his former employers, afraid of being killed or kidnapped, to flee overseas. 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."

The Iraqi government says unemployment has dropped 10 percentage points during the last three years, from 28% to 18%. But that's based on a snapshot of the jobless that excludes itinerant workers such as the men in Tayaran Square. Factor them in, and the unemployment rate is about 65%, say labor union leaders and economists. In a workforce of 7 million, that's about 4.5 million functionally unemployed.

In its report to President Bush last week, the Iraq Study Group estimated unemployment at 20% to 60%, citing a faltering economy "hobbled by insecurity, corruption, lack of investment, dilapidated infrastructure and uncertainty." Economic growth this year was 4%, less than half the expected 10%, the group wrote, and inflation remains above 50%.

Riyad Hasan, manager of employment and vocational training at the Labor Ministry, said the government recognized that unemployment was increasing as violence escalated, and that it might be feeding the sectarian conflict.

"On a daily basis we witness that most of the shops are being closed and shut due to the security situation," he said. "It's getting worse."

His office is struggling to train and place the unemployed. Of 900,000 workers who registered for training and job placement in the last three years, Hasan said, about 200,000 found jobs.

If the economy doesn't improve soon, Hassan Jabbar said, he and other workers will go to work for insurgents, tipping the balance further toward chaos.

"The government asks citizens to help stop terrorism and yet they have failed so far in providing for us. You can't blame people participating in terrorist activities if it provides them with steady income," Jabbar said, and workers drinking tea with him at Tayaran Square last week agreed. "The only thing preventing us from participating in similar activities is our conscience."

And nothing, it seems, can prevent the jobless from returning to the square. This morning, a shopkeeper said, 15 to 20 men were already back.

molly.hennessy-fiske@

latimes.com

Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Zeena Kareem and a special correspondent contributed to this report.

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