BAGHDAD // Within hours of Tuesday's bombing at a military recruitment centre in Baghdad, Iraqis seeking jobs returned to the ministry of defence offices where the explosion occurred, highlighting a simmering crisis - a chronic lack of employment.
Haider Munzer was one of the would-be soldiers who survived the blast that killed 61 people and wounded 125 others. He had arrived at the army depot early that morning, hoping his two-year-long search for work had come to an end. "I don't particularly want to be a solider. I certainly don't want to be in an army that protects all these rich politicians, but I have no other choice," he said yesterday. Despite the bombing, the 25-year-old managed to turn in his application before going home to the nearby Sadriya neighbourhood.
Sadriya is among Baghdad's poorer areas, and many of its young men had turned out to answer the government's call for new soldiers. "There are so many of us in Sadriya without work, so many in the same position as me, losing hope," Mr Munzer said. He described a situation in which growing numbers of his peers were turning to crime, joining gangs or working as thieves in Shorja market. "They sometimes do kidnappings or steal from businessmen and traders who come in from outside Baghdad," he said. "That is what people do for a job because there are no real jobs.
"I don't want to get into that and so when I heard there was a way of earning an honest living as a soldier, I went. So did everyone else and look what happened, we got what we got." There are no reliable statistics for unemployment in Iraq, with the United Nations estimating it at 18 per cent last year. A recent informal survey in Baghdad by the independent Iraq Youth Organisation found that 55 per cent of Iraqi men under 25 years of age in the capital had no work, with some university graduates taking jobs as cleaners because of the lack of other opportunities.
The repercussions are potentially serious, as Adnan Adl, a 23-year-old resident of Baghdad's Haifa Street explained. "A lot of young people in my area still get mixed up with extremists, with al Qa'eda, because of money," he said. Mr Munzer said a man known to be involved in insurgent activity recently approached him and two friends. He offered them each US$200 (Dh734) to attach a magnetic bomb to the car of an official.
"We turned him down but not everyone would," said Mr Adl. One of four brothers, he said none of them nor their father had earned regular money for years. "If I could, I'd leave this country today. I've got no future here. I want to go to a place where I can work and have a chance to build my life," he said. Iraq's government remains the major employer - the private sector is tiny - and the security services account for a large percentage of those jobs. Many serving soldiers and policemen are reluctant men-at-arms, pushed to take up rifles because there are no alternatives.
The tribal Awakening, or Sahwa, movement, which played such a large role in stabilising the country after 2008, was similarly a financial proposition to many of those who joined it. Fighters had worked for al Qa'eda for money and switched sides when offered cash to do so by the US military. It was an apolitical decision for many. "I used to help al Qa'eda with information. They'd pay me for that," said Ahmed Mizher, 27, a Sahwa fighter from near Abu Ghraib. "When I joined the Sahwa, I was happy to get paid for protecting my area and working with the government."
Those payments have now effectively stopped, he said, as the authorities wind-down the Sahwa programme, forcing its members to re-evaluate what makes best economic sense for them. "The Sahwa are either not getting paid, or the money is paid two or three months late, so some are thinking of going back to al Qa'eda; others already have," Mr Mizher said. His own situation had not yet reached that point, he explained, but he said it might come to that.
"I have a family and I'll do what I have to let them survive," he said. "To be honest, if I could do anything, I wish to go back to school and finish studying. I only went to primary school so I'd like to do that. And I'd like to have a real job one day." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org