Finding enough work key to peace in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- For Raad Abdulsada, every day starts the same way.

He wakes up at sunrise, heads to a busy, dusty corner in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood and waits for work.

Most days, the waiting is in vain.

"Maybe once a week I am hired," said the 31-year-old, his pink polo shirt and torn sweatpants stained with dirt. When he's lucky enough to get picked up, his compensation for a day of labor -- usually construction work -- is around 15,000 Iraqi dinars, or $13.

"I support a family of seven on this," Abdulsada said. "But for years I cannot get a steady job. So what else can I do? I have responsibilities. So I come here and wait." Abdulsada's struggle is anything but rare here. Though precise figures don't exist, most approximations put unemployment across Iraq at between 30 percent and 60 percent. U.S. officials estimate that well over half of Iraqis who want to work can't find jobs.

Violence has dropped dramatically here in recent months. But to keep it that way, Iraqi and American officials agree, the country's soaring unemployment rate must come down. They say that if more Iraqis don't find work soon, people here will pay the cost in blood.

"Unemployment is a very dangerous thing," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament. "When people have no income to live on, they become desperate and can quickly turn to violence." The link between unemployment and bloodshed is in especially sharp focus right now, as the U.S. military prepares to hand authority over the Sons of Iraq to the Iraqi government.

Also called Awakening Councils, the Sons of Iraq are citizen militias paid by the United States to fight the insurgency, and they are credited with playing a big role in improving security in Iraq. The reasons are twofold: Besides fighting al Qaida extremists who are still active, many of the roughly 100,000 Sons of Iraq are themselves former insurgents who agreed to turn against violence in exchange for paying jobs.

This week, the U.S. military is beginning to move the largely Sunni force to the payroll of the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which says it will gradually disband the militias. Despite mutual distrust between the Sons of Iraq and the government, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has promised to absorb some members into the national army, the police and other government jobs; the rest are supposed to be offered job training.

But there is widespread worry that the transition will go badly. If the government fails to pay the Sons of Iraq and they don't find other employment, many fear the former insurgents will turn back to violence.

"It's very important this works," said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, who oversees Baghdad. "This cannot be something that is allowed to fail."

Iraq's unemployment was high under Saddam Hussein. But the problem has worsened since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Soon after arriving, American officials disbanded the Iraqi army and the national police and fired government workers in Saddam's Baath party, leaving several hundred thousand people jobless. Indeed, those decisions helped fuel the insurgency.

More recently, the United States has changed its approach.

But much of the fallout has proven hard to reverse.

"I think the U.S. learned a lot from its early mistakes," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "They realized that a big part of the fight in Iraq centers around basic quality-of-life issues, which obviously includes whether people have jobs." Several U.S. programs now work to combat unemployment here.

The Army has handed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Iraqi businesses struggling to reopen, and the Defense Department is setting up secure commercial centers next to military bases where local entrepreneurs can operate. An initiative called Iraq First aims to give Iraqi companies the first crack at U.S.-funded reconstruction contracts.

Public works programs run by the United States now employ about 125,000 Iraqis, according to the State Department, up from 110,000 at the beginning of this year. Most workers are building roads, clearing damaged property and installing sewer and water lines.

And there is the most successful unemployment program, the Sons of Iraq.

But all that is only going so far. The big question now, Katulis and other experts say, is whether the Iraqi government will sincerely commit to fighting unemployment.