Economic Improvements Needed to
by Peter Kenyon
Weekend Edition Sunday, February 24, 2008 · U.S. and Iraqi
officials hail improvements in Iraq's security, but they say
economic improvements especially job creation are
urgently needed. Government and military spending are
picking up, but the private sector still has much catching
up to do.
Reliable figures are elusive, but according to the U.S.
Embassy in Baghdad, the official unemployment rate in the
city is 18 percent, and underemployment may be as high as 50
For years, officials and analysts have pointed to high
unemployment as an economic and a security problem, since it
leaves a large pool of idle men available for recruitment by
insurgents, militias and other armed groups.
With the daily violence well down in many parts of the
country, people say jobs programs are finally beginning to
At the edge of a huge U.S. military base near Tikrit, north
of Baghdad, an Iraqi carpenter-in-training tries his hand at
the power saw as an American adviser looks on.
Under a program called "I-Biz," the military is beginning,
nearly five years after the invasion of Iraq, to train
Iraqis to be plumbers, electricians and carpenters.
Once certified, they can either set up shop in the hometowns
or get a job with KBR, the major U.S. contractor. Most
choose the latter option.
Munif Munawer, 29, says the pay isn't great, but when a
neighborhood leader known as a mukhtar told him the
Americans would help him learn a trade, he seized the
"I was unemployed for a long time. We used to be shepherds.
This is much better. When the mukhtar said there were jobs
for Iraqis on the base, I said yes," Munawer says.
In Baghdad's massively fortified Green Zone this weekend,
the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry finally
launched its "Buy Iraqi First" initiative. A previous
attempt in 2004 had to be cancelled due to insurgent
Chamber CEO Raad Omar says "the sky's the limit" in terms of
needs in Iraq, but the atmosphere is better than it has been
Omar's goal is to create $500 million in new Iraqi business
activity and 10,000 jobs this year. He says that is not as
ambitious as it sounds when you consider how much work is
currently being outsourced.
Take KBR, for example. The company does about $500 million
worth of business in material for the coalition forces. All
of it is imported from Dubai. This is work that Iraqis could
do, he says.
Kais Ghazi, 30, owns Al-Eban Construction with his brother.
The company has rebuilt police stations, hospitals and
offices shattered during the invasion or its anarchic
Ghazi says the challenges include working around roadside
bombs and getting loans from dysfunctional banks, but the
worst problem by far is corruption.
The civil society group Transparency International ranks
countries according to a series of corruption criteria. Last
year, Iraq came in 178th, out of 179.
Ghazi says the Planning Ministry was a nightmare under
Saddam Hussein and not much has changed.
"Unfortunately, the problem is still happening, even after
the fall of the old regime the first thing is always the
payoff. The official says how much are you going to pay me,
then we can discuss the contract," Ghazi says.
Abd Alzahra al-Hindawy, a spokesman for the Planning
Ministry, says corruption is a problem, but it's a two-way
"I will not deny these problems; for sure there are
corruption cases. Unfortunately, there are some contractors
who also want to get contracts illegally, so there is
corruption from that side as well," he says.
The Chamber of Commerce's Omar says right now, the needs
vastly outweigh the resources. But he takes heart from
developments over the past few years, including those in
Kurdish northern Iraq, where security is better.
Anxious American politicians, homesick U.S. forces and their
families, and millions of Iraqis are hoping that Omar is
right, and that Iraq's future holds if not peace and
prosperity at least basic services and jobs for the
able-bodied Iraqis now sitting at home or on street corners,
waiting for anyone to pay them to work.