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Iraq's 10 million unemployed:
The forgotten issue

By E.A.Khammas

Occupation Watch
02 September, 2003

Under the burning sun of early August, the Iraqi unemployed continue their demonstrations and sit-in protest in front of the U.S. Occupation Administration headquarters in Baghdad.

Begun in late July and organized by the Union of Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), the 24-hour, daily, continuous protest demands: jobs or social insurance of no less than $100 per month to every unemployed worker; the rehabilitation of private and public factories; and immediate restoration of public services. This is the eighth unemployment demonstration since early May, none of which have achieved any real progress.

There are 150,000 unemployed workers registered in the UUI, but the number of the unemployed all over Iraq is estimated to be 10 million. Many of them are ex-soldiers, ex-prisoners of war, or ex-employees or workers in different Iraqi sectors that were dissolved or stopped after the war, predominantly because of lack of security.

During the first 11 days of protest, some demonstrators were arrested and jailed for 24 hours at least twice. They were accused of violating the night curfew.

Nineteen protestors were arrested the first time. During the second arrest on Saturday, August 2, 56 members of the UUI were taken away. They were maltreated and deprived of water and food. Some accused the US soldiers of sexual harassment and the deliberate use of persistent noise as a tool of sleep deprivation. They were released after a UN representative, who demanded that his name not be mentioned, intervened.

In fact, the American soldiers were on edge during the August 2 demonstration, holding their guns with bayonets fixed and the safety buttons removed. Some of them used obscene and racist words against the protesters, according to the international organizations supporting the demonstration.:

The soldiers were very sensitive to the media present. In one incident they asked the International Occupation Watch Center cameraman to erase parts of the tape which showed their behavior. Some soldiers, however, were more sympathetic with the protestors and encouraged them to continue their protest.

Qasim Hadi, the head of the UUI, says that the negotiations with the civil authority representatives, which began on May 22, did not result in anything but evasion and unfulfilled promises. “They are talking about programs like what they call ‘Household work’ and ‘Military work’ of which we have seen nothing. They tell us to go to the Local Councils which have no authority at all, no finance. They can not even furnish their offices. How are they going to solve the problem of the unemployed?”

Mr. Hadi also thinks that the Governing Council has no authority and does not represent the poor or the unemployed. He emphasized the extreme urgency of the situation. “We cannot wait until the local and foreign companies start to operate. This will take time because of the insecurity and the absence of services. Some of the people who are protesting here do not have money to return home; some of them walked 12 kilometers to get here.”

The Iraqi Media Net announced that each Iraqi would be given a certain amount of money. The protesters however declared that they would not accept the Media Net’s statement unless an American official announces it, mentions a fixed date, and publicly states rules of distribution.

Slogans and chants reveal different political aspects of the problem: “This country will not be rebuilt only with Iraqi hands”; “Where is freedom?”; “Where are the promises?” Samir Adil, political bureau member of the Workers Communist party says that the issue is certainly political. “The American coordinator of labor issues, Stephen Spiers, told me that he refused to give the unemployed one dollar because this means officially recognizing them, and that next they will ask to be part of the Governing Council. Why not?” Adil wonders, “No party in the Governing Council has this number of members [as does the UUI].”

The American authorities distributed a poster saying that while all Iraqi voices are heard through peaceful protest, freedom is responsibility and therefore any violence will not be tolerated and will be dealt with firmly.

Many see this as sheer propaganda. “The demonstration is completely peaceful. We prevented the demonstrators from holding even a small stone. In fact, we asked the Iraqi police and the American soldiers to protect the demo[nstrators], but they refused,” Hadi said.

The unemployed Iraqis face many economic, social, and psychological problems. They cannot afford to pay rent or to support their families. Their families are disintegrating, and many of their wives are asking for divorce or deserting their houses. “It is her right to do that. I am not providing her, or her two children, with anything,” said Yahia Ismael, an ex-soldier who is now handicapped after being shot in his left shoulder in Nasiryia on March 27 of this year.

E.A. Khammas is the co-director of the Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad. This article was first published on 10 August, 2003