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Little is left for Iraq's skilled professionals

Corruption closes doors to the few suitable jobs that pay a living wage.

January 06, 2008|Tina Susman and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Night after night, hour after hour, Hussein Ali Mohammed sits alone in the medical clinic that employs him as a guard.

It is not the job the 26-year-old envisioned when he earned his teaching degree, but it's the best he can do for now in a country teeming with educated, ambitious people -- but sorely lacking in suitable jobs that pay living wages.

Years of political turmoil, U.S.-imposed sanctions and war have devastated Iraq's workforce. Hundreds of thousands of skilled professionals have left the country. Businesses have closed. Insurgents and thugs have targeted professors, doctors and businesspeople, killing them, abducting them or driving them out of their jobs and out of Iraq.

Even as sectarian violence subsides, the options are limited for those who remain.

Shiite Muslims, who say they were held back from good jobs under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-led regime, complain that corruption and violence now limit their opportunities. Sunni Arabs say they are discriminated against as payback for Hussein's mistreatment of Shiites, who now dominate the government.

"I feel this job doesn't suit my dignity or personality, being a guard in a clinic, passing the night between four walls talking to nobody," said Mohammed, who lives in Hillah, a city about 60 miles south of Baghdad. "I think it is difficult to find the job I would like in Iraq, under the current circumstances. I wish I could leave Iraq, but it is not that easy."

Iraq's government estimates unemployment at 17.6% and underemployment at 38%, but those are considered conservative figures. The problem is seen as one of the major threats to the country's long-term recovery. To make matters more precarious, about 60% of the population is younger than 30 -- and many young people are ripe for recruitment into criminal life if the money is right.

"A lot of these people are pretty much stagnant, with low-income wages," said Col. Gabe Lifschitz of the U.S. military's Gulf Region Division, comprised of military and civilian personnel working on reconstruction projects in Iraq. Without middle-class people creating job opportunities for low-wage earners to move up the economic ladder, Lifschitz said, Iraq's economy would flat-line, breeding anger and discontent.

"The way to go in and turn that around is, you want to have somebody who is employed. That person who is employed will have less likelihood of becoming an insurgent."

U.S. officials are funding programs to provide vocational training, but those do little for educated middle-class Iraqis such as Mohammed, who say their job-seeking efforts are stymied by political nepotism and corruption in the institutions that might hire them.

Akeel Mohsin Sharif, 29, graduated from Baghdad University four years ago with a degree in computer sciences. Recently, he said, a medical college invited him to apply for a job as a teacher's assistant. "After three months of pushing and pulling and doing interviews for the job, they kept coming up with excuses for not hiring me," Sharif said. "At the end, they asked me for $400 in exchange for the job."

Sharif refused.

"Why should I pay them? Our lives have become all bribes. Everyone has to bribe someone to get anything done," said Sharif, whose previous job overseeing computer maintenance ended when the business closed because of security concerns.

Now he installs computers for individuals or small businesses on an on-call basis, earning $200 to $300 a month, not nearly enough to consider marrying, having children and buying a home.

Several other young men said they had put off marriage and family because of their dim job prospects, a sign of the shredding of the social fabric in a country where men and women were expected to marry young and produce children. Men are expected to be the breadwinners.

Some leave Iraq in hopes of finding lucrative employment, only to return with their morale further diminished.

Saad Naeem, 29, went to Lebanon hoping to obtain a master's degree after graduating in 2005 from Baghdad University's college of sciences, but it was too expensive there. Now he drives a taxi in the southern city of Najaf.

"I am shocked by the reality, but I feel I have to get used to this job as a fait accompli," said Naeem, who won't consider marriage until he finds a better job.

"Almost all Iraqis feel that their country is not yet able to offer the jobs they want," he said. "We were dreaming when we were students, but the dreams are something, and the reality is something else."

Broken dreams are everywhere.

After the fall of Hussein, Ali Qittan, an aspiring history teacher, imagined dressing in a suit and tie each day and standing at a chalkboard before eager students. Instead, Qittan, 29, loads and unloads trucks in Baghdad.

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