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Thu 21 Feb 2008 01:29 AM

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Iraqi professionals forced into menial jobs

Teachers, artists and military officers living hand to mouth relying on small jobs to survive.

They are teachers, artists and military officers but in a country where the economy is in chaos, thousands of Iraqi professionals are living hand to mouth and relying on small jobs to survive.

The government's promises of economic revival have failed to materialise, despite a state budget this year of $48 billion - more than double what it was before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Geography teacher Asad Mohammed, 36, was among tens of thousands who lost their jobs when US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 sparking an economic meltdown and an extensive purge of the public sector, the country's main employer.

He now sells toys in a central Baghdad market and these days is more concerned with the latest crazes among children than climatology and geomorphology.

"I dream of working again for the ministries of education or higher education, but the doors are not opening despite my repeated attempts," said Mohammed, who drives everyday from Mahmudiyah, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Baghdad, to the Iraqi capital to run his toy stall.

The enormous public sector, which dominated the economy under the former regime, was most affected by the invasion.

Officials of Saddam's Baath party were removed, but the sector was also disrupted by America's ambition to transform Iraq into a market economy.

Five years later, the Iraqi state, boosted by oil revenues, remains the chief investor in the economy and principal creator of employment, but seems unable to answer the needs of job-seekers.

A computer engineer, who would only be identified by his initials M.S., says he, like thousands of others, had fruitlessly sought a government job.

"I even paid more than $500 to facilitate this but it was useless," he said at a small shop he has rented in Al-Bas Al-Sharqi neighbourhood in central Baghdad, where these days he repairs personal computers for a living.

"The economic situation is very tough, I work long hours each day and still do not earn enough to live a reasonable life," he said.

Reliable statistics are difficult to find but unemployment estimates range between 25 - 48% and Iraqi officials estimate that 43% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Among those in this category is artist Saad Zghayir, 34, who graduated from the college of fine arts four years ago and now goes from door to door searching for work to provide for himself, his wife and four children.

He carries a bag with his paintbrushes and colours - just in case someone would like a portrait or landscape painted.

"I have been searching for a permanent job for four years but in vain," said Zghayir.

"Because of nepotism or corruption or because I am not a member of the right party, I am still unemployed," he said, adding that thousands of university graduates are in the same situation.

An ex-officer of Saddam Hussein's now-dismantled army these days runs a pavement sweet stall near the popular Al-Shorja market in central Baghdad.

He was among those purged from the military and, because he was an officer, is reluctant to ask for his job back despite the passing of legislation that restores jobs to ousted middle-order members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

"Talking about working again for the government is futile," said the close-shaven, upright officer who wears khaki clothes. He refused to give his name, military rank or marital status.

Large numbers of former Iraqi military servicemen have avoided signing up for the new security forces fearing this will simply serve to identify them and mark them as targets in the bitter sectarian war still raging in parts of the capital.

A bachelor of science graduate working as a taxi driver in his 20-year-old Volkswagen in Kadhimiyah, northern Baghdad, is also disgruntled.

"I searched for a job at the health ministry where I can utilise my skills but I have not managed it," he said, declining to give his name.

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