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Iraq Burdened by High Unemployment

Iraq is struggling with sky-high unemployment, made worse by the security situation in much of the country.

Experts disagree on Iraq's exact unemployment rate. But all agree that it is too high. Some economists say 20 percent of the nation is jobless, others say the figure is even higher. One member of Iraq's Parliament, who serves on an economic committee, says 65 percent of the country is out of work.

Nazaneen Mindlaw, represents constituents in Baghdad. She says unemployment is made worse by security problems, corruption and a lack of business experience in Iraq. Mindlaw says Parliament is working on several programs intended to put people to work. But she says the best solution to Iraq's severe unemployment problem is to encourage private sector employers.

Reconstruction in Northern Iraq

The relatively peaceful Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq has attracted some foreign investment and the skyline of the city of Irbil has more construction cranes than mosques.

The head of a construction company in Irbil -- Abdul Rahim Adib -- says war, sanctions and chaos have left Iraq's infrastructure in ruins, but has created opportunity for builders. "They need everything; they have very few things. They need infrastructure; they need roads, buildings. They have good ground; they have good weather; they have good nature -- water, oil and there are mountains, touristic areas," says Adib.

Adib is busy building a $300-million project and has hired about 1,000 people. But he says the impact on the local job market is less than might be expected because many of his skilled workers have to come from outside Iraq. "Really, we have difficulties to finding the people we need, exactly. So we bring people from outside. We have some from Kurdistan and Iraq, we have also from Lebanon, Syria, India, Egypt, and many other countries," says Adib

Adib is giving some students at a local college some training and work experience in the hope that they can take on engineering responsibilities in the future.

Manufacturing and Infrastructure

And some Iraqi-Kurds, like the road grader operator, have high-paying jobs, and others are getting experience and learning skills. A different effort to boost employment focuses on the nation's stalled manufacturing sector. Iraq has about 200 major factories that once employed more than 300,000 people. Most of these plants are closed now.

A Pentagon official says some of these plants can easily go back into production. U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation, Paul Brinkley, says the effort could put 11,000 people back to work this year.

"They need some working capital to get kicked off to get their employees back to work," says Brinkley. "Some need power restored. So some backup [power] generation capacity has to be purchased and installed."

Brinkley says U.S. experts have examined many of the plants and found that a modest $10-million could get ten of these factories back into operation. He says while officials found some poorly equipped, aging factories; other facilities were in good shape.

"[We] expected to find a Soviet-style older industrial base, non-competitive. From the very beginning, we have found a more complex situation -- factories that in many cases have very modern equipment, modern automation, that manufactured goods that could be competitive in a world market," says Brinkley. "And in many cases, [we found] some factories that are not positioned to be competitive, but did employ large numbers of the Iraqi people."

Brinkley says it is crucial to get some of these plants running so they can attract the investment needed to expand and prosper, and hire more people. "It is a difficult thing to get a private sector investor to look at an empty factory that is idled for a long period of time."

The factories are scattered all over the country and once made all kinds of products -- fertilizer, tomato paste, ceramics, busses and tractors. While these efforts are helping thousands of people, one expert says population growth across the Middle East, including Iraq, means the area will need millions of new jobs.

Fariborz Ghadar, Director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for Global Business Studies, estimates that the region will need to create 100-million jobs during the next 10 years. Ghadar says it will be difficult to produce so many jobs, and a high unemployment rate could contribute to social tensions and political unrest in the Middle East, including Iraq.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.