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Reconstructing Iraq one job at a time

Fighting terror and bringing a sense of security to Iraq are the No. 1 objective of the new government,  but close behind is the economy for families who are struggling to survive.

Every morning, about a hundred men line up at Baghdad’s Liberty Square — plumbers, bricklayers and painters waiting for a day’s work.

Some are angry with Americans. They thought Iraq would be better off by now. Some are desperate. “If tomorrow people paid me to join the jihad and kill, I would,” one man said.  “I’ll do anything for a living.”

Around the corner, Hassan Musa sells tea for 5 cents a glass.  He was a medical student but dropped out a few months ago because he couldn’t afford to eat, let alone pay tuition.  “I know faculty members who are now driving taxis,” Musa said.

About half of all Iraqis are unemployed, but American officials say 150,000 Iraqis will find jobs as the United States spends $18 billion in reconstruction projects in the next three to five years.

According to retired Adm. David Nash, director of the Project Management Office, “We’ve been putting in a lot of foundation.  We’ve got it now and we’re moving forward.”  

At a Baghdad job fair, Iraqi companies eagerly bid for some of that work.  Sallah al-Mohammed, owner of White Camel, a small construction company, has been coming to these job fairs three days a week for the past six months.  “My friend, let me tell you something,” al-Mohammed said.  “Just talk — nothing.  Too much talking and little work.”

But some Iraqis are finding work.  There are literally hundreds of construction sites across the country.  And the ones that are working best are the most basic — the ones that aren’t dependent on foreign experts.

On the big projects, like water and electricity, work has slowed since many foreign engineers can’t visit their work sites without risk of ambush or kidnapping.  Hundreds of contractors have left Iraq.

So much of the work has fallen on the shoulders of the military, which has the firepower to protect and visit sites.  In Baghdad the U.S. 1st Cavalry is building a school, a soccer field and a wall at a women's center.  But these tiny community initiatives aren’t enough to make a difference at Liberty Square, where the men are idle and frustrated.

Hassan Musa is happy for now to serve tea for a living, but it wasn’t what he thought he’d be doing a year after the Americans arrived.