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Unemployment hits hard in Basra

[Iraq] Manager of Sheraton in burnt out hotel.
Riyad Tawfiq al-Ammar, inside the burnt remains of the Sheraton hotel, (Mike White)

Every morning Abd al-Karim Mahmud Shu'ayt gets on a bus and goes to the place where he has worked for 10 years in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The 44-year-old father of five arrives at the Sheraton Hotel, walks through the front gate, then stops and stares, wondering what to do next.

For Abd al-Karim, this is where the decade-long routine ends. Just weeks earlier, a mob entered the 207-bed luxury hotel and began looting anything that could be moved. Then they set fire to it, destroying what was left and also the jobs of more than 300 people.

Abd al-Karim, who used to look after the hotel's swimming pool, has now been left with no work, no income and no way of providing for his family. And his story is repeated thousands of times over throughout the city of 1.5 million, first hit by war, then violence and looting. With the regime toppled, all government employees have now lost their jobs, and even if people like teachers went back to work there would be nobody to pay them.

Many workplaces were damaged in the fighting or cannot open for lack of electricity and water. While some shops are beginning to reopen, most stay shut, their owners scared of further looting.

The end result is that very few people in Iraq's second biggest city now have jobs, a situation likely to be one of the greatest challenges facing any new authority trying to rebuild the country. With no government in place, and limited aid arriving in Basra, most families are facing a future replete with fear and uncertainty.

Khadim Muhammad Jawad was a manager at the Credit Bank of Iraq in Basra. When looting broke out, the bank was a prime target. After the bags of money were carried off, Khadim found himself suddenly unemployed with nowhere to turn."There are no jobs here. Where am I meant to look? In what place?" he said angrily.

Khalid Abdullah used to work as a government transport manager. But now there is no government, little transport - and no job for Khalid. He has a wife, two young children and less than US $10 left. "What I do now? I have no job other than [my old] job."

Outside the city's main police headquarters, about 50 men line up under the fiery sun, waiting to apply for jobs in the new police force with the coalition troops in control of the city. Muhammad Salman Hamid has been waiting for four days, from 09:00 to 20:00 local time, and still not managed to get an interview.

The father of four was a policeman under the former regime, and just wants his old job back - any job for that matter. He said that other than the possibility of police work, there were no jobs for him in Basra. "I need money - my family needs food," he said.

Some have stayed at work, but have no idea when they will get paid. In a corridor of the Basra Maternity Hospital, Aliyyah Mansur sits inconsolably on the floor, hoping that maybe today she might get paid. The 50-year-old cleaner has been going to work every day since the war began a month ago, but has received nothing. A widow, her only other support was from her son - but he was in the Iraqi army and badly injured during the fighting.

Weeping, she said her monthly wage of about $2 was used on supplementing government food rations. "I hope the hospital still has money. Maybe not all my salary, but something," she said. Now, all she has is rice and flour to make bread - but no money to buy vegetables or other kinds of food.

Back at the shell of the Sheraton Hotel, the general manager, Riyad Tawfiq al-Ammar, walks slowly between what used to be his office and his living quarters, shattered glass and charred debris crunching under his expensive leather shoes.

With his official green and gold Sheraton badge pinned to his freshly pressed shirt, he still conveys the image of being in charge. But the reality is that he is just like everyone else. "I am one of about 300 employees who have lost their jobs."

Even during the war, the hotel remained operational and undamaged. Staff looked forward to a bright future with hundreds of international media representatives likely to stay, and hopes that the occupying British troops would set up their headquarters there when they finally took over Basra.

But for Abd al-Karim the situation could soon be worse than sad - it may well become desperate. To make ends meet, he used also to work as a guard at a school. But the Iraqi army took that over and then looters attacked it, with the result that he had to move in with his parents and brothers.

The three wooden benches in the reception room of his simple house on the outskirts of Basra soon fill up as the 25 family members file in, the overflow spilling onto the floor. In a corner, chipped china sits in a sideboard, a picture of a new BMW car pinned to a wall alongside images of the Shia Imams, Ali and Husayn.

Nobody in the house has an income any more. One brother was a seaman, but was laid off because there was no work. "I am now jobless. I have nothing to do. I have children and I have no money, and I am very worried about how to feed them," Abd al-Karim said.

There are 12 children in the house and just one 50-kg sack of wheat and another of rice left to feed them and the adults. He thinks their supplies could last a month if they are careful, but after that "it will be miserable for us. I have no work - I need some luck."

He still goes to the hotel every day, hoping there will be a miracle and he can get some kind of a job back. But the sound of banging in the rooms high up in the Sheraton is not of reconstruction - it is of looters continuing to strip the hotel of everything from carpets to basins, beds and wood for cooking.

On his way home, Abd al-Karim's bus stops at a red light. In a city that has suffered much destruction, it is ironic that the traffic lights have been one of the first things to start working again. Now, Abd al-Karim and thousands like him wonder when it will be their turn.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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