A U.S. Labor Department official, who has been advising Iraq's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, says the effort to rebuild that country's social welfare system is achieving success.
Chris Spear, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for policy, says the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has made remarkable progress in the past six months. Mr. Spear spoke in Washington Tuesday as three Iraqi women who are the newly appointed key officials in the ministry begin an eight day fact-finding visit to the United States, focusing on the issues of job creation and job training.
U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington also announced Tuesday that the the highly-esteemed Fulbright Scholars program is being resumed in Iraq after a 15-year suspension. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says the first of 20 Iraqi graduate students getting Fulbright grants to study in the United States will be selected in December.
U.S. administration officials are in the midst of a concerted effort to point to successes in restoring stability to Iraq, in the face of rising criticism that the rebuilding efforts are not going well there.
The Labor Department's Mr. Spear, said the Iraqi ministry, charged with doling out social benefits as well as managing the employment sector, was a shambles when he and his team arrived in Iraq in May. He pointed out that half of the 60 buildings owned by the Labor Ministry in Baghdad had been bombed or looted. The ministry headquarters itself was picked clean.
"You've heard the notion they took everything but the kitchen sink. Well, they took that too," he said. "They took the sink, the toilets, the pipes, the lights, the wiring, the carpet. There were no desks, chairs, computers, paper, pens to write with. There was nothing. We're talking hollow shells of buildings. People standing around with no place to sit, no place to work."
In addition to that difficulty, he said there was basically no labor component in the labor and social services ministry, but plenty of social services. Pre-war, the ministry provided financial help to Iraqis who were poor, disabled, sick, or retired. Mr. Spear said the stipends were one way former president Saddam Hussein held on to his power. "That was the purpose of the previous regime, to make as many people in the country as reliant on Saddam as possible," he explained.
The U.S. official said that meant no job training, no unemployment insurance, a lot of government jobs, and a lot of government handouts.
The only industry that was flourishing in Iraq, Mr. Spear said, was defense. "The closest thing that this ministry did to vocational training was building SCUD missiles right on the property," he pointed out. "We had nose cones, rocket engines, RPG parts, it was a weapons-manufacturing facility. On the main campus of about 16 buildings, they manufactured arms."
Mr. Spear explained that once his four-man team established a makeshift office, they worked to get backpay to government workers who had not been paid since February. The next step was to pay social benefits to the elderly and sick. The money for those payments came from seized assets and funds appropriated from the Iraqi government. By July, the books were balanced.
Since then, he went on to say, Labor Ministry buildings - including homes for orphans and the elderly - that were damaged in the war, have been renovated. A budget for 2004 has also been drawn up incorporating funds from the $87 billion recently approved for Iraq by the U.S. Congress. Future goals include an employment training program to help Iraqi workers become independent, rather than dependent on a strong central government for jobs and stipends.
Mr. Spears said the object of the U.S. advisors in Iraq is to work themselves out of their jobs and turn the government back over to the Iraqis.