Iraqis face unemployment rate of at least 60 percent

Ali Ahmed is among teeming numbers of jobless with nothing to do but hang out in Baghdad's parks despite two years ago he earned his engineering degree. It is called living “the garden life”.

Frustrated, Ahmed says his 16 years of study were "a big mistake" and that he should have dropped out long ago to get a more menial job.

"I was dreaming to be a governmental employee or working in the private sector, but I realized later that these were only dreams," said the electrical engineering graduate from Iraq's University of Technology.

Iraq's soaring unemployment rate is estimated at 60 to 70 percent, and attempts to lower it are caught in a bloody Catch-22.

Joblessness helps fuel the country's insurgency, since idle young men can be lured into the ranks of militant groups - but that same instability is hampering rebuilding efforts and economic growth that could generate more jobs.

Some 4,000 people - mainly young - crowded a weekend job fair in Baghdad's Zawara park, where 25 Iraqi companies and several international businesses were taking resumes.

Most of the companies work off contracts from the U.S. or the Iraqi government, highlighting the fact that such contracts - rather than private Iraqi investment - remain the strongest engine in Iraq's economy.

"We believe that when we ensure a good life for people, the security situation will be gradually improved," said Eng. Ali Jamil Latif, head of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which helped organize Sunday's job fair along with local district council in Baghdad's western region of Karkh.

"Even if we achieve 30 percent success with this fair, we will consider it a step forward," he said.

The companies at the fair did not say how many jobs they were looking to fill - but most were on the lookout for engineers and other professionals for construction contracts. And they were looking to recruit from the neighborhoods where the projects are being carried out to prevent workers from having to take dangerous roads to the work sites.

That way, they "will be safe from attacks and will protect what they did for their neighborhood," said Ramzi al-Shamari, president of the Iraqi Target Contracting and General Trading Co., which is carrying out renovations on schools, sewage and water infrastructure in Karkh.

Some 1,200 people at the job fair submitted resumes to his company. Al-Shamari said the number of hires depends on the amount of his firm's contracts.

The desperation of the jobseekers was evident. Many argued with guards trying to get the applicants to line up to get into the hall where the companies were waiting.

Ahmed Qassim Hussein recalled the days before the 2003 U.S. invasion, saying back then he made good money as a metalworker - as much as $1,600 a month.

"We had a good life in Iraq - good food, nice clothes, we enjoyed traveling. But that went out with the occupation," the 44-year-old Shiite father of three said, puffing a cigarette as he stood in line. "All this vanished when security situation started to deteriorate."

Now he sells sandwiches and tea at a gas station, and he and his family share a single room in an abandoned government building after Sunni militants forced him out of his home in Baghdad's northern Sabi al-Bor area.

The job fair was an opportunity for the jobless here, many of whom said they've tried going around government ministries and even an office for placement among contractors, looking in vain for work.

Iman Subaih Ahmed said she was desperate for money to ensure treatment for her mother, who is battling cancer.

"I'd like to work as a translator with any foreign company. I wouldn't be afraid to work for the U.S. army even," said the 25-year-old English graduate, who wore a beige headscarf. Iraqis working for the military are targeted by extremists.

"Danger is everywhere and I have to take this risk. I'm the only one who feeds my family, and I can't get work in government facilities," she said as she filled out an employment form.

Ali Ahmed joked that the only one who benefits from his engineering degree is the owner of the coffeeshop where he and his friends spend their days playing dominos and smoking waterpipes. He fixes the cafe's equipment free of charge.

If the job fair doesn't work out, he said half-seriously to the friends accompanying him, they've got an alternative - set up their own street carnival game.

"We'll get a bunch of empty cans and an air rifle and let children play target practice," he said.

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