Cash-Strapped Iraq Faces Growing Unemployment

The future was looking bright for Ibrahim Saad. Three months ago, the 20-year-old Iraqi was formally engaged to be married to his childhood sweetheart. He also expected to land a job with Iraq's massive police force, a position that would enable him to support his wife.

Everything seemed to be coming together for the couple, who fell in love as teenagers just before the U.S.-led invasion. They were now old enough to wed, and the terrible violence that has plagued Baghdad seemed to be subsiding.

But they are still waiting.

Lower Oil Prices, Fewer Jobs

Iraq is now cash-strapped due to the recent downturn in oil prices. As a result of the drop in revenue, a government hiring freeze has been put in place, including with the country's largest employer: the Ministry of Interior. The agency has recruited hundreds of thousands of police officers in recent years to help restore a measure of stability to the war-torn country.

As long as the price of oil stays low, the Interior Ministry simply cannot afford to hire more people. That has left Saad and other young Iraqis like him with few job prospects.

"Every day I go, and they say to come back next week. I've only been given promises," Saad says.

Saad says his fiancee's family has put the marriage on hold until he can get a job. His fiancee wants to know when he will join the police. They bicker, he says, and he has no answers to give her.

"I don't fall asleep until 3 am. I wake up at noon. I eat and sleep again. I spend my whole day sleeping and worrying," he says.

Unemployment High Among Younger Men

U.N. statistics put general unemployment in Iraq at 18 percent. But a recent U.N. study asserts that for young men between the ages of 15 and 29, the rate is a staggering 28 percent.

About 60 percent of Iraqi workers are employed by the government. For most young Iraqi men, the easiest place to find a job is with the police. Saad says there are few legal job opportunities for men his age.

"That's why young guys go and take money from al-Qaida. You get paid $100 to plant a roadside bomb. If they don't have money to survive, they will do that," he says.

The government hiring freeze has highlighted how dire the economic situation in Iraq has become for many entering the work force.

American Aid Bolsters Iraqi Police Force

Despite America's own economic troubles, the U.S. is spending $1.2 billion this year to supplement the Iraqi Interior Ministry budget. The U.S. money is critical to the agency — according to newly released Iraq budget figures, 95 percent of its budget is spent on salaries.

The American aid also is used to build police stations and to equip the force.

"There are critical items like pistols, like rifles, helmets, body armor, communications we have purchased for them," says Maj. Gen. Mike Milano, the American in charge of training Iraq's police force.

Meanwhile, the waiting continues for young men in search of police jobs. In Iraq's often-corrupt system, some pay bribes in an effort to win jobs with the police force.

Samir Shaker, 18, says he has paid $700 in bribes so far to get a job with the police. Because jobs are so scarce, he says, corrupt officials now want double the money.

Shaker's family has gone into debt to try and secure a position for him, and they have no more money to give.

He says he and his friends all face the same predicament.

"We only sit around and do nothing for 24 hours a day. We smoke, we talk and hang out in the streets," Shaker says.

In trying to come up with moneymaking schemes, Shaker says, one of his friends was willing to sell a kidney.

If the situation gets any worse, Shaker says with the kind of gallows humor typical of Iraq, people will start to eat each other.

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