On a recent afternoon in the southern city of Basra, a cry went up in the local bazaar that the police were coming. In an instant, street-sellers rolled up their wares and scattered. One of the vendors, Gasim Talib, wasn't so lucky.
As he received an earful from the local officers, Talib had some strong words of his own.
"What do you want me to do? There are no jobs; there isn't even a government to find us jobs. How can I make a living if I don't sell on the streets?" Talib said.
It might be a typical scene in any Iraqi city as unemployment soars across the country. But this is the oil hub of Basra, where new money is said to be plentiful, rapid development is everywhere to be seen and major international corporations are arriving in force. Talib isn't a typical case either; and his story is common among a growing segment of Basra's jobless.
"‘I am 28 years old. I graduated from the College of Engineering at the University of Basra in 2005. I tried so hard to get a job but could not. I didn’t have 5,000 US dollar [bribe] or a contact in the government, and I refused to join any political party. This is why I am a street vendor, always chased by the police for selling in prohibited places," Talib told IWPR.
Recent graduates from the two higher education institutions in Basra province echo the same complaint: skilled work is nearly impossible to find and many jobs require connections, bribes or ties to a political party, they say. Making matters worse is the arrival of oil corporations that so far have largely imported their own technical staff.
Souad Abdul Nabi, 26, graduated in 2007 with a degree in computer science from the province's private university, Shaat al-Arab College. She says her education is proving worthless as debts pile up at home.
"I burdened my family with university expenses. This is the third year [after graduation] for me and I haven’t been able to get a job. I feel guilty that I burdened my family without giving back anything. There are no vacancies, expect for those with influence and power," Nabi said.
According to Dr Ageel Abdul-Hussein, director of information at the University of Basra, an average of 4,000 students matriculate each year, with 4,500 graduates in 2010. But Abdul-Hussein said it is not the responsibility of the university to provide jobs for graduates.
“We are responsible for preparing them through education as well as training programmes and workshops," he added, although none of the graduates who spoke to IWPR said they had attended the latter.
Hashem Laibi, media director of the Basra provincial council, said the unemployment rate for the entire province in 2010 was 25 per cent, but conceded that it could be even higher for graduates.
Dr Nabil al-Jaafar, professor at the College of Management and Economics at the University of Basra, estimated the overall jobless rate to be closer to 30 per cent and said among the poorest sectors of society, including recent graduates, the figure is as high as 50 per cent.
"We have been keen to support the graduates by securing appointments in foreign companies that want to invest in Iraq. We'd like to start a process in which to qualify for a license to invest in Basra these companies must appoint a number of new graduates," Abidi said, adding that the council had endorsed micro-credit projects funded by the United Kingdom to provide graduates with small-business loans.
Experts believe Basra province holds between 40 to 60 per cent of Iraqi's oil, an untapped resource that could revitalise the crippled economy. Since contracts were awarded to foreign companies last August, oil giants such as Exxon Mobil, British Petroleum and China's CNPC have arrived along with hundreds of smaller outfits. The Guardian newspaper earlier this month described Basra city as "heaving with new money".
Dr Mohammad Saleh, representative of the ministry of education at the ministry of oil, said the central government intends to turn the incoming investment into jobs.
"The ministry of oil is encouraging oil companies to financially support trained engineers and graduates to reduce unemployment and at the same time to supply the oil industry with professionals,” Saleh said.
Saleh continued that the ministry of oil has developed plans for a College of Petroleum in Basra aimed at developing skilled workers for the incoming oil giants. He said the school could be a reality by 2012.
Until then, graduates entering the workforce in Basra say they stand little chance of landing a job.
"The prevailing sentiment among young people is hopelessness," Amin Ali, a freshman at the University of Basra, said.
"This is really frustrating. It makes me feel that I’ll be just another graduate without a job or a future like so many of my friends. You can't get a job unless you beg or pay. It seems society has become a game in which eligibility criteria has nothing to do with education or experience."
By. Ali Abu Iraq
This article originally appeared in IWPR.net and is produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net