War on Iraq

Tired of Living in Survival Mode, Iraqis Pessimistic Over New Local Leaders' Ability to Make Good on Promises

Iraqis are doubtful that incoming provincial councils will boost employment, curb corruption or bring basic needs like water to their homes.

Many Iraqis are skeptical that local governments will deliver on their promises, despite improvements in security that have raised expectations of a better life.

Iraqis interviewed by IWPR in several provinces listed runaway unemployment, entrenched corruption and faltering reconstruction as the biggest challenges ahead. Having lived in survival mode for years, many said they were eager to see development -- but had little hope that provincial leaders elected a month ago would deliver it.

Instead, they feared the failure to tackle deep-seated problems could see the country slide back into civil conflict.

The apprehension Iraqis expressed about the incoming provincial councils is not surprising given the widespread suspicion of politicians, whom many regard as corrupt and loyal more to their parties or clans than to the people.

In the case of the Shia-dominated central governorate of Karbala, the most critical issue is unemployment, according to several residents interviewed there.

Hanan al-Masoudi, owner of a pharmacy in Karbala, said it saddened her to see long lines of young men looking for “anyone to hire them”.

“Many young people in our city have been neglected,” she said. “I personally know many graduates who are jobless.”

Masoudi said reports that some coalitions bribed citizens to vote for them had further eroded her trust in local government.

“The provincial council needs to learn from the failures and experiences of the former council,” she said. “The solution is to stop offering jobs only to family members, to give up bribes and to provide jobs for all residents in the city.”

Karbala, a province holy to Shias, has endure suicide bombers attacking pilgrims and Shia militias attempting to control the city. Security has improved but residents say only solving the unemployment crisis will keep the peace.

“Young men in Karbala can’t find work, so they fall into the hands of armed groups which offer them huge amounts of money in addition to power,” 37-year-old Haider al-Musawi said while queuing up for construction work one morning in Karbala.

“Offering jobs will stop young men from going back to these groups.”

The United Nations has warned that unemployment could affect security. According to the UN’s Iraq Labor Force Analysis report, released last month, 28 per cent of Iraqi males aged 15 to 29 are unemployed.

Jobs are scarce as well in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, but the provincial council’s top priority will be security, residents there said. As in Karbala, however, militias are said to be paying young men to join them.

“Without establishing security we can’t work on reconstruction projects or electricity or services or anything else,” said Abdullah Ahmad, a lecturer in Mosul University’s law school.

Iraqis have complained for years that services such as water and electricity are scarce, making simple tasks such as bathing a chore that requires extensive planning.

In Anbar, a once war-ravaged province where Sunni parties will share power, some are hopeful that the new council will make strides in improving living conditions.

“I’m very optimistic about the new council,” said Nasrah Hamid, a doctor in Ramadi. “I hope that they will help education and start rebuilding the governorate... especially given the relative stability.”

But Mustafa Salih Al-Kubaisi, a professor at Anbar university, said he was pessimistic about the future of the province because of its history of nepotism and undemocratic rule.

Kubaisi said he expects “a small amount of reconstruction and improvement in infrastructure. But it will be done poorly”.

Services and reconstruction have largely been the responsibility of the central government and the United States, but little progress has been made since 2003.

The Iraqi government is quickly inheriting responsibility for reconstruction, and has even employed the Iraqi military to take on projects such as paving roads and restoring services, Reuters news agency reported this week.

But as Iraq’s most recently-elected leaders, provincial councils are expected to respond to local needs swiftly and thoroughly.

Some outgoing provincial council members have complained that the councils had limited authority and resources to carry out projects.

In Baghdad and Basra, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition swept to power, some are hoping that the central government will bring more power to the provincial councils.

Some also said they expect the concentration of power will make Maliki’s coalition accountable for successes and failures both nationally and locally.

Ali Jabbar, a 30-year-old journalist in Basra, an often volatile governorate where unemployment and services are top concerns, said the provincial councils have had little power and that “the central government and the ministries in Baghdad are fully in control of everything”.

But “the incoming [Basra] provincial council is led by the same party that is ruling Iraq, so there are no more excuses”, said Jabbar.

Omar Abdullah, a 40-year-old engineer from Baghdad, said many Iraqis voted against incumbents and would do it again.

“If they don’t respond to people’s demands, they’re not going to get re-elected,” he said.

Reported by IWPR-trained journalists Emad al-Shara, Zaineb Naji and Daud Salman in Baghdad. IWPR local editor Abduladhim Karim reported from Basra. An IWPR trainee journalist from Mosul whose identity is not revealed because of security concerns also contributed to this report.