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Iraqis more secure, but few are finding jobs

Most jobs are in the military, police, and intelligence forces. But Iraqis say those jobs are only attained through family ties or bribes.

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Plans are under way to purge the provincial police force of any militia or Sadrist influence. Tribal leaders beholden to rival parties, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), were told to furnish lists of candidates for 5,000 new jobs in the security forces. Replicating what was done in other parts of the country this year after military operations against the Sadr's Mahdi Army, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tasked a committee to spend $100 million in Maysan Province to provide emergency relief for the poor and unemployed, and to improve services.

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Bribe for a job: $1,250

But not all poor are treated equally.

Nadhim Salman and seven members of his family squat in a crumbling two-room structure, part of a former Army barracks in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Maysan's capital Amara.

Mr. Salman, a former soldier, has been unable to collect a pension. The whole family lives on the 6,000 dinars ($5) earned daily by his son Aqeel as a bus driver. His other son Walid wants to join the security forces but was told that since he had no tribal leader to vouch for him, he had to pay a bribe of 1.5 million dinars ($1,250) to join the army or 3 million dinars ($2,500) for the police.

The family used to get occasional handouts of cash, flour, or bags of groceries from Sadr's movement, which has been known to help the neediest throughout Iraq. But this came to an abrupt end with the government offensive in the province.

In Baghdad's slum of Sadr City, Ahmed Abbas has a similar story. He's a school dropout in his early 20s. He has been an on and off fighter with the Mahdi Army over the years. He has held odd jobs ranging from selling ice, eggs, and cooking gas to pushing carts at the central market.

Mr. Abbas has tried to get a job as a street sweeper but was told "the applicant lists were full." Jobs with the security forces he says required up-front bribes.

Baghdad's police chief Maj. Gen. Kadhim al-Mahamadawi denies that any bribes are taken for hiring at any level. He says the force is simply "overwhelmed" by applicants.

Col. Shelia Bryant-Tucker, outgoing inspector general with the US military command tasked with training and equipping Iraqi forces, says although she has not personally encountered the phenomenon of up-front bribes for security jobs, she would not be surprised, given the prevalence of other corrupt practices within the Army and police.

"It's going to take a whole paradigm shift, a whole generation…. It's a huge problem," she says.

American officials say they have learned their lesson from the "mismanagement" of the past and that the focus of the US effort – military and civilian – is now on promoting private sector growth and helping the government function better.

Last year's surge in US troops, which has largely wound down now, was intended to create the right conditions for economic revival.

Shop owners were handed cash payments, starting at $2,000, to reopen shuttered markets. Unemployed youth and former insurgents were hired for neighborhood watch programs and community cleanup drives. Prominent tribal sheikhs and community figures were given cash and the opportunity to get involved in reconstruction projects.