US's IRAQ ECON POLICY: 12 MILLION JOBLESS
By CHARLES J. HANLEY, AP Special Correspondent
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - THEY LINE UP by the hundreds, in the
morning heat, on the slim hope of a job. Others wait -
and wait - in a downtown square for a chance at a
day's backbreaking construction work, and $2. Across
town, one jobless engineer serves tea for pennies from
a sidewalk table. Luckier Iraqis are handed brooms to
sweep Baghdad's dusty streets.
Six months after America's lightning war in Iraq (news
- web sites), the vast majority of Iraqi workers are
unemployed. The Labor Ministry estimates 70 percent or
more, some 12 million Iraqis, are without jobs.
Summarizing a half-year of occupation last week, U.S.
administrator L. Paul Bremer pointed to Baghdad's
reopened shops and traffic-filled streets. "Anyone can
see the wheels of commerce turning," he told
His economic status report did not mention the
millions of idle workers, but Iraqis see them
everywhere, on their streets, in their homes. "This is
our biggest problem today," said Nouri Jafer, labor
undersecretary in Iraq's interim Cabinet.
Iraq became a land of the unemployed when the
government collapsed in April under attack from the
U.S.-British invasion force, and its ministries were
burned and state-owned factories and oil installations
looted in the war's chaotic aftermath. Then, after
taking over in early May, Bremer formally dissolved
the Iraqi army.
"The first mistake was when they disestablished the
army and police forces," Jafer said. "This created
more unemployment because (President) Saddam Hussein
(news - web sites) had more than a million in the
"That surprised me, shutting down the army,"
ex-lieutenant Nasir Ali Abed, 27, told a reporter
after handing in an application at a makeshift "job
center" run by volunteers in a Baghdad park. The main
breadwinner for an extended family of 17, Abed wants a
police job, but he isn't hopeful. "Things are not
Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority is rebuilding
a police force - 40,000 nationally thus far - but has
only begun reviving the army, with just one 700-man
battalion. Some state factories from the old
government-run economy have managed to reopen, but
heavier industries remain closed, especially those
associated with military products.
The U.S.-led authority, through Iraq's interim
administration, the Governing Council, has financed
340,000 emergency jobs, generally paying the
equivalent of $3 a day to a new army of 180,000 street
cleaners across Iraq and 160,000 people clearing the
countryside's poorly maintained irrigation canals.
In the face of 12 million, however, "this is a very
small number," Jafer said.
The permanent jobs people want are in government
ministries - at a minimum of $60 a month, double or
triple what they earned before the war. Such
government jobs are a first priority in a placement
program Iraqi and occupation officials are trying to
"We've registered 350,000 soldiers and officers for a
combination of employment services - counseling,
placement. We're putting them into a database," said
Army Lt. Col. James Otwell, senior U.S. adviser to the
These ambitious plans - including official job centers
and vocational training - await U.S funding, however,
as part of President Bush (news - web sites)'s
proposed $20.3 billion package for Iraq reconstruction
More immediately, in 2003, the jobs have dried up.
Bremer noted last week that in July he had ordered a
freeze in hiring by Iraqi government ministries,
"because we don't have enough money."
Even where government workers were recalled to their
jobs, the vision of wheels turning can be an illusion.
At the Housing and Construction Ministry, now a
charred shell, dozens of employees stand idly and chat
outside an annex building for hours each day. There's
not enough desk space inside. "We want to work, but
there's no work to be done anyway," said one
21-year-old woman, Rabad Hussein.
The bleak jobs picture has its sordid side, as well as
Countless Iraqis tell of demands for bribes -
generally $100 - from job "gatekeepers" at agencies
ranging from the police to the Health Ministry. Others
say subcontractors hiring street sweepers routinely
pad their contracts by overstating the numbers hired,
and then shortchange the pay given actual workers.
"It's all fakes and frauds," complained Yasir Fawzi
Hamid, 28, who said he couldn't afford bribes demanded
of him at two ministries.
Hamid is among dozens of Iraqi men, ragged, dirty, who
drift each morning into garbage-strewn Tayeran Square
in hopes of being picked up for at least a day's
manual labor at a building site, for as little as $2.
But little building is going on, and some of these men
- many from destitute provincial areas staying at
25-cent-a-day flophouses - believe things were better
under the ousted dictator Saddam.
"Before the war, everybody had his own job, everybody
was working," said Khalaf Jassim, a stocky,
57-year-old man with nine children back home in
southern Iraq's Qadissiyah province.
American adviser Otwell has a different perspective.
"It basically was a welfare state," he said of the
35-year Baath Party regime toppled in April.
Unemployment is not unfamiliar to Iraqis. Iraqi
society had grown increasingly corrupt and politicized
as Saddam's ruling group, through the government, took
control of productive economic sectors. During two
decades of war and U.N. economic sanctions, the
welfare state deteriorated, paychecks shrunk, many
Iraqis did lose their jobs, and the middle class grew
poor. While joblessness increased during the final
years of Saddam's rule, the government never announced
any firm figures.
Flying in from Washington, American planners have
their ideas: to privatize Iraq's economy by selling
off promising state companies to investors - Iraqi
investors, they hope, but foreigners if necessary.
"The private market is the one that's going to provide
success," said Otwell, an Army Reserve civil affairs
specialist from Orchard Park, N.Y.
It's a notion with believers even in Tayeran Square.
"We'll find work if foreign companies come to Iraq,"
said Un Holam Sajid, a 40-year-old southerner. But
Hamid interjected a note of realism: "There aren't any
private jobs yet. It's the government that has to hire
At the Labor Ministry, Jafer said Iraq's interim
leadership subscribes to the Americans' vision. "We're
encouraging growth in the private sector, via foreign
and Arab investment," he said. "But regrettably, the
security situation is bad, and is improving only
Nearly uncontrolled crime, especially in Baghdad,
coupled with bombing attacks aimed at the Americans
and their supporters, have largely kept outside
It's a self-perpetuating dilemma: Young Iraqis - with
no jobs coming in - are joining the ranks of looters,
carjackers and other criminals.
At his unofficial job center in a central Baghdad
park, Lateef Jaber Mutar, 44, secretary of a newly
founded "Unemployed People's Union," complained that
the Americans "are slow" - with their bureaucracy of
planners spreading through the rooms of a giant Saddam
palace complex here.
"It takes them two months to do anything," he said.
"We need jobs now."
A major U.N. assessment issued Oct. 3 said
privatization of Iraq's state-owned enterprises should
take at least four years. If a permanent Iraq
government does follow that route, what is to be done
in the meantime?
Jafer looked out his window at one feeble gesture: a
few workmen clearing a large plot in front of the
ministry. But what about the 12 million?
"One idea I suggested to the Governing Council is that
they give people $100 as a kind of gift for Ramadan,"
he said. That Muslim holy month begins in late
As for jobs, the ministry has no ready fixes, Jafer
told a journalist. "Do you have any ideas?" the labor
undersecretary asked. "I'd like to hear them."