Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Welfare Discontent in Iraq

Iraqi Protesters Seek Not a New Regime, but Jobs

By Jack Healy
The New York Times
February 14, 2011

BAGHDAD — Iraq would seem to have virtually every ingredient for upheaval: crippling poverty, few good jobs, creaky public services, anger at an entrenched political elite and thousands of young people who meet online to vent their grievances and organize protests.

But the revolution has not come to Iraq. Not yet, at least.

Sporadic demonstrations have rippled through the country over the last few weeks, as oil workers and nightclub owners, communications workers and communists try to yoke the energy and outrage that toppled President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and galvanized much of the Middle East.

On Saturday, a 31-year-old father in northern Iraq, despondent after failing to find steady work, doused himself with heating oil and set himself ablaze, his family said. His actions carried an echo of the self-immolation that incited an upheaval in Tunisia and then rippled across North Africa.

So far, the demonstrations in Iraq have attracted modest interest and had little visible impact.

“We are still in evolution,” said Fouad Qasim, 25, who said he had not worked since losing his job with an American military contractor three years ago. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week.”

Mr. Qasim was among about 200 people who joined a Valentine’s Day protest on Monday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a small plaza on the edge of a traffic circle. Waving red balloons and silk roses, they chanted, “We love Iraq!” and “We need a change!” as Iraqi soldiers and police officers looked on.

Organizers are trying to attract followers by setting up Facebook groups with names like Blue Revolution, Streets of Baghdad for Change and Baghdad Will Not Be Kandahar. They have called for protests later this week and a larger demonstration at the end of the month.

Although the Iraqi protesters said they took some inspiration from the huge uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they also said they were not interested in toppling Iraq’s leadership. Iraq, after all, is run by democratically elected lawmakers who forged a coalition government in November after eight months of political paralysis.

Protesters said they could live with the current government, but simply wanted better jobs, reliable electricity, clean streets and security.

“We don’t want to change the regime,” said Hassan Ghazi, 35. “We just want to change the services.”

But given the depths of Iraq’s troubles, toppling a government might be an easier task.

About one in five Iraqis is unemployed, though the overall rate of underemployment is thought to be much higher, and much of the joblessness is concentrated among Iraq’s youth. Infrastructure is crumbling. People get by on a few hours of electricity every day and are bracing for another sweltering summer with insufficient power.

Despite an overall decline in violence, militants have continued to carry out bombings, assassinations and other attacks that left more than 100 civilians dead last month, according to the Interior Ministry. In a public opinion poll conducted in October by the International Republican Institute, more than half the Iraqis surveyed said they thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, with security cited as the largest concern.

Demonstrators and protest organizers say they want to build a movement from that anger.

“Each one has a different demand,” Mohammed Ghazni, 23, said as he surveyed the crowd that filled half of the modest plaza in Baghdad on Monday.

There were liquor store owners upset that their shops had been shut down, wives pleading for their husbands to be released from jail, women demanding an equal voice in society and students calling for job opportunities.

“We need unity, a demand for the same thing,” said Mr. Ghazni, a third-year law student who is pessimistic about finding a job after he graduates next year. “We are trying to bring people together.”

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an employee of The New York Times from Mosul, Iraq.

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