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Desperate, Jobless And In Harm's Way In Iraq

Laborers say inaction by the government pushes them to return to a deadly Baghdad square.

Latest Attack Kills 76

December 13, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Said Rifai | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — 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.

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