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.”


Family of Palestinian slain by police sees probe dragging on

Updated 41 sec ago

Family of Palestinian slain by police sees probe dragging on

JERUSALEM: The family of a Palestinian man with autism who was fatally shot by Israeli police said on Thursday that it took a month for authorities to confirm the existence of security-camera footage of the shooting, raising concerns that no one will be punished for killing their son.
The existence of the footage had been in question throughout an investigation that the family says has been painfully slow. Rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating and prosecuting police violence against Palestinians.
“The police say the investigation is ongoing. Though it is late, we hope that it will end by delivering justice,” said Khiri Hallaq, the man’s father.
His son, Eyad, was fatally shot on May 30 just inside Jerusalem’s Old City as he was making his daily walk to the special-needs school he attended.
At the time, police said they believed the 32-year-old was carrying a “suspicious object” and said they opened fire when he failed to heed calls to stop.
According to various accounts, two members of Israel’s paramilitary border police force chased Hallaq into a nook and shot him as he cowered next to a garbage bin.
Hallaq’s teacher, who was with him, told an Israeli TV station that Hallaq, who had difficulties speaking, fell to the ground after being shot, then ran for cover next to the garbage container. She said she repeatedly cried out to police that he was “disabled” and tried in vain to stop the shooting. At least five bullet holes were seen in a wall of a small structure at the site.
At the time, the shooting drew comparisons to the death of George Floyd in the US and prompted a series of small demonstrations against police violence. The uproar crossed Israeli-Palestinian lines and drew Jewish protesters as well.
Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, said Israel was “very sorry,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident a “tragedy” and promised a thorough investigation.
Since then, however, the family has heard little while the two officers involved in the shooting have reportedly been released from house arrest.
On Wednesday, after a month of pressure by the family, Israeli officials confirmed in a court hearing that investigators are studying security-camera footage of the shooting, said the family’s lawyer.
Israel’s Haaretz daily had reported earlier this week that there may not be any footage, even though the streets and alleyways of the volatile Old City are lined with hundreds of security cameras.
The lawyer, Jad Qadamani, said the family has not been permitted to see any of the videos because they are evidence in an ongoing investigation.
Nonetheless, he said they are “more calm because we know the videos are there.” He called the footage “an important tool” in the investigation.
Qadamani said the family was frustrated that it had required so much effort for authorities to acknowledge the existence of the videos and that the investigation has dragged on for so long.
“Maybe there is a need to investigate, but not to this extent,” he said.
Cases involving police violence are referred to an independent internal investigations department under the Justice Ministry called “machash.” The ministry said the case remains under investigation and declined further comment. Israeli police referred questions to the ministry.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, cases referred to the department rarely end with disciplinary action.
It said that over 80% of more than 5,400 cases sent to machash from 2015 to 2018 were not investigated at all, and no more than 3% of complaints resulted in indictments. About 20 cases each year result in disciplinary proceedings for the use of force, and most of those end up with little more than a reprimand or reduction in rank.
It said the figures were based on official data obtained through a freedom of information request.
The statistics “speak for themselves,” ACRI said. “With an overwhelming majority of complaints against police violence never investigated and a complete lack of accountability on behalf of authorities, the cycle of the abhorrent use of police force will never cease.”
It said the police profiling of minorities is also a “severe problem.”
Qadamani, the family lawyer, said it has been difficult for them to trust the system but they remained hopeful.
“The feeling is very problematic. I expect and very much want to believe that they will take the real and correct steps for justice for Eyad,” he said.