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Iraqis search for postwar jobs and security

As deadly danger fades, Iraqis are trying to rebuild their everyday lives.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2003



BAGHDAD

Suspended in limbo between a frightful past and an uncertain future, many Iraqis are growing more fretful with each passing day at the absence of a clear authority that might restore normal life.

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For most citizens, the risk to life and limb has passed, now that the war and the mass looting that ensued are over. Now they are turning to more mundane, but deeply problematic concerns, such as where they will earn a living, and how they will educate their children. Running out of money and stored food rations, they have nowhere to turn for answers to such questions.

Starved of information in a country with no newspapers or trusted radio stations, they pluck at straws.

Crowds in search of work

Ali Kamal, a teacher, spent Sunday morning in a milling crowd of men at the Alwiyah Club in downtown Baghdad, filling out a job application he had bought on the street outside for 12 cents, a trivial sum for most Iraqis.

He had heard on the grapevine that the self-styled "Office for the Reconstruction of Baghdad," which has set up shop in the club, was lining people up with jobs. So he handed his form to a man by a sign that read "Education Committee," and was told to come back in a few days.

"Nobody is in charge here, or at least we don't know who is," says Mr. Kamal. "But there must be some hope."

He did not know that the provisional US authorities have refused to recognize the "office" on which he had pinned his hopes. Indeed, US troops went a step further Sunday and arrested its leader and seven other men, saying former exile Mohammed Zubeidi was "exercising authority which was not his," according to US military spokesman Capt. David Connolly.

Nor did Kamal know that the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which is supposed to be running Iraq, is still several days away from making initial contact with officials from the government ministries that might assign jobs, according to Maj. Gen. Carl Strock, a top aide to ORHA chief Jay Garner.

"We realize that there is tremendous confusion that does need to be clarified," says General Strock.

The crowd of Iraqi Air Force officers that gathered outside the Air Force club on Sunday morning - sent there by Mr. Zubeidi's office but finding nobody to collect their photocopied job applications - was both confused and skeptical.

"People know this is not serious, but they are running after their dreams," says Wing Commander Dhiya Abed. "All they hear are promises."

Wing Commander Abed does not expect his old fighter-pilot's job back, because he does not think the US will allow Iraq to build a serious air force. But even Kamal's future as a teacher is shadowed by doubt. The education ministry is just a smoke-blackened, gutted hulk of a building, stripped of its computers, its furniture, and its records by looters.

Meanwhile, the US Army's 308th Civil Affairs Brigade is canvassing neighborhoods around Baghdad International Airport. The military unit is one of scores designed to help convince locals that they hold Iraq's future in their own hands.

Col. Terry Callahan, deputy commander of the 308th, says the mission requires a degree of salesmanship. "We must sell them on themselves and their ability to rebuild their own country," he says. "And we must help them become self-sufficient so that when the United States leaves Iraq there is no need to come back."

As the soldiers work their way through the neighborhood - called the "French Quarter," because it was built in the 1980s as temporary housing for French construction workers hired to build the airport - they talk to residents to catalog their needs. At the top of everyone's list: security, jobs, and electricity.

Services on the mend

Sporadic electricity supply is now enjoyed by about 60 percent of Baghdad's residents, according to Maj. Gen. Steve Hawkins, the US officer in charge of the capital's engineering, and the same proportion have running water. It will take another two weeks before broken cables and pipes can be mended to bring the city's utilities up to normal standards, he says.

With electricity comes commerce. On streets where only cigarette vendors hawked their wares 10 days ago, followed by vegetable stalls, soft-drink stands, gas stations, kebab stalls, and grocery stores, ordinary shops are opening their doors.

With electricity, too, come traffic lights, though few drivers pay them any heed, and the traffic cops who might enforce obedience are still a rare sight.

Telephone lines are still down in Baghdad, though a few enterprising individuals on downtown street corners offer calls on Thuraya hand-held satellite phones for $5 a minute.

That is too expensive for most Iraqis, however. "We haven't any salary. Our life is very expensive," says resident Cousiy al-Sattar. But he is quick to stress that he isn't complaining. "Step by step, maybe it is good," he says.

Unpaid for weeks, few have money for anything but essentials, and even the lucky few thousand who have begun to work in the electricity and water sectors can expect only a $20 one-time payment from the Americans in the short term.

That money is coming from frozen Iraqi assets in the United States, according to Strock. When more people go back to work, he says, they will be paid according to their payscale before the war.

An exclusive meeting

The long-term success of reconstruction efforts will ultimately rest upon the shoulders of a new Iraqi government. A meeting in Baghdad Monday of 300 to 400 political-party and interest-group leaders is designed to lay the groundwork for an Iraqi interim authority that will govern the country until elections can be held.

The conference, the second of its kind to be held under US auspices in Iraq, is expected to see the first signs of an "emerging leadership," says Barbara Bodine, the top ORHA official for central Iraq.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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