Soaring unemployment fuels protests in southern Iraq

Police prevent protesters — demanding jobs — from storming the provincial council building during a demonstration in Basra, where unemployment has shot up sharply to at least 30 percent. (AP)
Updated 26 July 2018

Soaring unemployment fuels protests in southern Iraq

  • “If you are well-connected mainly among political parties and have money, you will get any job you dream of. If not, you will get nothing”
  • In Basra, a city of more than 4 million, the unemployment rate shot up sharply to at least 30 percent

BAGHDAD: For more than three years after graduation, Karar Alaa Abdul-Wahid tried to get a stable job in the Iraqi government and in the private sector — to no avail.
He once was offered a job with the oil ministry in his energy-rich hometown of Basra, but it came with a hefty price: he would have to pay a bribe of $5,000, which he couldn’t afford.
“Every place has a copy of my resume attached with a request for job,” Abdul-Wahid, a graduate of the Basra Technical Institution, told The Associated Press by phone from the southern city.
“If you are well-connected mainly among political parties and have money, you will get any job you dream of,” Abdul-Wahid said. “If not, you will get nothing.”
Mismanagement since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein has increased joblessness nationwide. In more recent years, idle young men were lured into the ranks of militant extremists, and now unemployment is fueling violent protests in the capital of Baghdad and the Shiite heartland in the south.
Demonstrations involving thousands of people broke out this month in Basra province, protesting the lack of jobs and poor public services, including frequent power outages.
According to the World Bank, the overall unemployment rate in Iraq stands at 11.2 percent and is nearly twice that, 21.6 percent, in areas that once were under Daesh control and endured heavy destruction from military operations that officially ended late last year.
As of 2014, the poverty rate increased from 19.8 percent in 2012 to an estimated 22.5 percent, it added.
In Basra, a city of more than 4 million, the unemployment rate shot up sharply to at least 30 percent, according to deputy Gov. Dhirgham Al-Ajwadi.
Between 30,000 and 35,000 students graduate from the city’s private and government universities and institutions, and most of them end up without jobs, he said, blaming federal officials for not focusing on what the labor market needs.
The Basra protests have spread to other cities and threatened to paralyze the oil industry, the lifeline of Iraq’s economy. They have derailed traffic at main ports on the Arabian Gulf and neighboring Iran and Kuwait.
To contain the unrest, the federal government promised an urgent allocation of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars ($3 billion) for electricity and water projects, as well as 10,000 jobs.
But the requests for jobs exceed that number, with more than 85,000 people applying so far, Al-Ajwadi said. “Till now, there is no plan on how and when this will be implemented.”
Unemployment has been one of the thorniest issues for the government, with 70 percent of Iraqis under age 40 looking for work.
The eldest of six children, the 26-year-old Abdul-Wahid has taken a series of unstable jobs since 2015 to help his family. But he recently got an idea he saw while surfing the Internet: selling hot and iced drinks around the city from a vehicle.
“I liked it because it’s something new and no one did it before in Basra,” he said.
He borrowed money from relatives and friends to buy and modify a small car. Then approached a coffee-machine supplier, which helped him with a free machine and discounts on supplies.
He now roams Basra’s streets, offering various types of coffee, tea and other hot and cold beverages. He makes around 900,000 Iraqi dinar (about $750) a month.
Abdul-Wahid considers himself lucky, because his peers are forced to take menial jobs despite their education.
“There are graduates who work as accountants in small business or construction workers or cleaners in hospitals or security guards in malls because they want feed their families,” he said. “The situation of youth in Basra is miserable.”
He lamented that Basra is seen as “the mother of wealth” because it has about 70 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels, along with its ports.
“When we think of all the wealth we have, we feel sad and upset. We deserve to live a better life, not only compared to other Iraqis but compared to the world,” he said.
Iraq suffered a double shock in 2014, when militants from the Daesh group swept through areas in the north and west and the price of oil plummeted on international markets. Oil revenues make up nearly 95 percent of the federal budget.
That forced the government to stop hiring and to divert much of its resources to the costly campaign to battle the militants, severely affecting job creation, the private sector and investor confidence. As a result, growth has been stunted, with poverty and unemployment on the rise.
Among Iraq’s many unemployed is Ali Fadhil Kadhim, a 25-year-old graduate with a degree in science and physical education who has taken part in the Basra protests.
Like others, he has applied for jobs but is not optimistic.
“These promises are just anesthetization for the people and to keep them silent,” said Kadhim, who has worked as a security guard, construction worker and taxi driver. “We started a revolution and we will not give up.”


Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

Updated 25 August 2019

Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

  • Buffer area sought to ‘limit any uncoordinated military operations,’ coalition says

HASAKAH/SYRIA, BEIRUT: Syria’s Kurds would support the implementation of a US-Turkey deal to set up a buffer zone in their areas along the Turkish border, they said on Saturday.

The “safe zone” agreed by Ankara and Washington earlier this month aims to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG have played a key role in the US-backed battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as “terrorists.”

On Saturday, Mazloum Kobani, the head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said his alliance would back the deal.

“We will strive to ensure the success of (US) efforts toward implementing the understanding ... with the Turkish state,” he said.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” he told journalists in the northeastern town of Hasakah.

US Central Command said late on Friday that the SDF — which expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in eastern Syria in March — had destroyed outposts in the border area.

“The SDF destroyed military fortifications” on Thursday, it said in a statement on Twitter.

“This demonstrates (the) SDF’s commitment to support implementation of the security mechanism framework.”

On Wednesday, the US and Turkish defense ministers “confirmed their intent to take immediate, coordinated steps to implement the framework,” said a statement by the US Department of Defense.

Also on Saturday, a representative of the US-led coalition fighting Daesh said the buffer area sought to “limit any uncoordinated military operations.”

“We believe that this dialogue is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner,” Brig. Gen. Nicholas Pond said.

On Aug. 7, Turkish and US officials agreed to establish a joint operations center to oversee the creation of the “safe zone.”

Little is known about its size or how it will work, but Ankara has said there would be observation posts and joint patrols.

Damascus has rejected the agreement as serving “Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.”

Syrian Kurds have established an autonomous region in northeast Syria amid the country’s eight-year war. But as the fight against Daesh winds down, the prospect of a US military withdrawal had stoked Kurdish fears of a long-threatened Turkish attack.

Turkey has already carried out two offensives into Syria in 2016 and 2018, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded in the Syrian city of Idlib on Saturday, a war monitor said, as regime airstrikes hit its outskirts in a government offensive on the last major opposition bastion.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and opposition-run Orient News said a car blew up in the Al-Qusoor neighborhood. 

The Observatory said the blast killed two and wounded at least 11.

The city and the surrounding Idlib province in northwest Syria form part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.

A new push by Syrian government and Russian forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances this week in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a new civilian exodus. Hundreds of people have been killed in the campaign since late April, the United Nations says.

On Friday Russia-backed Syrian troops reclaimed a cluster of towns they had lost early in the eight-year-old war, driving out the last rebel fighters from the Hama countryside.

Idlib city itself has largely been spared air strikes since a major bombing campaign on the territory began in late April, but on Saturday its outskirts were hit from the air, the Observatory and opposition media said.

Heavy strikes continued to hit the south of Idlib province, including around Maarat al-Numan, a city that has been a sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas around the country. This week tens of thousands fled to Syria’s border with Turkey as the fighting advanced.