A part-time job with a temporary contract in Iraq’s Industry and Minerals Ministry cost mechanics graduate Yasmine $1,000.
It cost Haider 10 times that amount to get a job at the Oil Ministry in early 2018.
Iraqi law might criminalise both those who pay bribes as well as those taking them but monitoring groups and officials admit that enforcement is lax.
The threat of criminal charges has done little to stop the gatekeepers to coveted government posts extracting thousands of dollars from young graduates seeking work, even as the jobs either disappear or never start.
Yasmine and Haider are just two of several such graduates who spoke to The National in an investigation into one aspect of a tangled web of corruption that has put Iraq at 160 out of 180 countries on Transparency International's corruption perception index.
When you pay a bribe, there are no refunds
Yasmine, in her late twenties, graduated in 2014 from the University of Technology in Baghdad, one of the oldest seats of learning.
She struggled to find work for five years but eventually paid a bribe to land her dream job in a ministry.
She says she was hired alongside 100 other graduates in February 2019. Despite paying for the job, she was told there was no budget and she was fired soon after.
"We were all promised that our temporary contracts will turn permanent in few months,” she said.
"Day one in the job, a senior manager told us, 'forget about anything called a salary. We don’t have a budget for you'."
Once a bribe is paid, there is no hope of a refund.
"They dismissed me. I chased my contact on WhatsApp to get my money back but he blocked me. I can’t report him.”
High unemployment and few jobs to spare
Youth unemployment stands at 36 per cent, according to the World Bank which says that 2.5 million unemployed Iraqis urgently need jobs.
Before 2003, sanctions and government over-reach had already weakened most enterprise.
While successive governments have targeted job creation since the US-led invasion, insecurity, corruption and political instability have scared off foreign investors.
For decades, the public sector – where jobs have good pay and come with state benefits – is where most have sought work even though starting salaries can range from just $380 to $600 a month.
It has left Iraq with a bloated civil service that costs the state around $5 billion a month.
Three-quarters of state spending in 2020 went on salaries – a figure 400 per cent larger than 15 years ago.
As oil prices collapsed globally last year, Iraq slashed the state budget and salaries delayed.
In a crowded field, desperate and frustrated graduates – some who have been jobless for many years as their degrees and training waste away – say they have no other option but to pay for access.
Government officials tasked with stopping such bribes tell The National that "cash for jobs" schemes are the hardest to track.
The government itself admits that billions of dollars of public money has been misused or simply disappeared since 2003 while basic infrastructure and government services like access to safe drinking water, health care and uninterrupted electricity, have crumbled.
Corruption is one of the drivers of the massive street protests in October 2019 calling for an end to bribery, mismanagement and unemployment. In the crackdown, security forces killed nearly 600 demonstrators and left tens of thousands with life-changing injuries.
Firas Al Bayati, a lawyer and rights activist, says he is not surprised that many chose to pay bribes for jobs.
“I personally dealt with many cases of Iraqis who hold degrees in science, law and business, but they hold no clout at all in public sector employment, which is based on nepotism and slush money,” Mr Al Bayati said.
“Employers should look for qualified, skilled and hardworking graduates. Here they are looking for their money.”
Don’t forget my 'dues'
Among the main reasons, rights activist give for the spread of this phenomenon is a prevailing belief that bribery is the only way to get things done.
Petty corruption even has its own slang: “Ween al malaat”, or “don’t forget my dues”.
There are no official or unofficial figures of how many people come forward to report bribes.
But there are politicians who publicly admit they have taken them.
In 2016, Mishan Al Jabouri, a veteran member of parliament, said on live TV that he had taken millions in bribes.
A non-corrupt politician in Iraq is something of a rarity, Mr Al Jabouri told Itijah TV.
“I swear by my honour, I did,” he said. “We are all corrupt. I am a member of the Commission of Integrity. We open cases and then close them when we receive bribes. That's one example,” he said.
“I took millions of dollars from one guy to close a case against him but I didn’t do that. I fooled him.”
Mr Al Jabouri refused to disclose names of other corrupt politicians for fear that "they will kill me right in the street".
Five years on, he told The National that he categorically did not accept bribes and that the interview was an attempt to "create a shock" in a country where corruption has become a "national policy".
'It’s a lucrative business'
Government spokespeople reached for comment on corruption did not respond.
But an official with the Commission of Integrity, set up in 2004 to fight corruption, described bribes for jobs as the “hardest to track … because the job seeker deals with a mediator outside the ministry."
The official detailed the process.
"Both finalise the deal outside before the mediator arranges the rest with an official or more than one inside these government offices who they trust very well. … And these officials get the names of those who paid to pick them up from the list of those submitted for the job,” he says.
"Some political parties, politicians and lawmakers benefit from selling jobs through mediators as many of the announced jobs are reserved for political parties that the minister or senior officials belong to.”
In terms of scale, the official described it as “a lucrative business that could yield hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions.”
The government is trying to stamp out the practice.
The Federal Employment Council is now the only body that announces job opportunities and receive applications.
All work will be done online to help fight corruption.
But the council is still awaiting funding approval from this year's budget to start work.
"That could help somehow but it will not end it," the commission official said.
Officials being convicted for corruption are exceedingly rare.
In 2018, an Iraqi court sentenced a former trade minister and two other high-ranking officials in their absence to seven years in prison after they were convicted of embezzling up to $14.3 million in public funds.
The case is one of the few.
Shopping for fresh graduates
Haider, like Yasmine, has never met the corrupt government official he says he paid to get a job.
The $10,000 bribe got Haider, 28, a job in a ministry in 2018 without taking government tests or doing an interview.
His mother sold her jewellery. His father, who works at the Education Ministry, borrowed money.
His parents paid half the money in advance as “we wanted to make sure my name was on the list of the appointed,” he said.
A middleman gave Haider his appointment letter stamped by a senior ministry official.
But like Yasmine, he lost his job within six months after being told he had not passed the probation period.
“They are shopping for fresh graduates," Haider said. "Some influential officials have quotas to appoint people who belong to their sect.
“But they make a lot of money out of this as they recycle the vacant posts among desperate and jobless university graduates, who are victims of this fraud even if we have paid bribes,” he said.
"I have done something wrong, I know, but what can I do to get a job? It’s a mafia, believe me.”
Corruption also pushed Mostafa Turki, a graduate of Baghdad University's College of Political Sciences, to join the mass anti-government protests last year.
A son of an army officer who was killed by ISIS in eastern Iraq’s Diyala province in 2014, he was given priority over other candidates for a job managing and arranging data and information within the Council of Baghdad.
But six years later, he is yet to start work.
Mr Turki, 29, showed The National the list issued in August 2015 by the council to appoint him and others who lost their fathers in the war against ISIS.
But he suspects nepotism or corruption saw his post given to someone else – even if he can't prove it.
“The government official who was processing my papers shamelessly told me he lost my documents and that I needed to resubmit new ones stamped by the Diyala provincial council in five working days," Mr Turki said.
"I was willing to go back to unsafe Diyala but that was an unreasonable deadline to meet. I gave up." - Additional reporting by Sinan Mahmoud in Baghdad