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Daily Column
US Papers Wed: Hill Confirmed
Can Iraq Go It Alone? Foreigners Filling Jobs That Iraqis Often Shun
By DANIEL W. SMITH 04/22/2009 02:00 AM ET
A new US ambassador to Iraq is confirmed with little fanfare, the prospect of a G.I.-less Iraq is looked at as the question “Can Iraq Go It Alone?” is asked, and the point of view of people moving to Iraq to snag often low-paying jobs.

Hill Confirmation
Some in Iraq have been made to feel that they’ve been going it alone already, but I guess the US Senate figured that if even the Iraqi parliament could elect a speaker, then they’d better follow suit and confirm the most basic of positions in foreign relations – an ambassador. If you look carefully in both the New York Times and the Washington Post, you might find a paragraph or two in daily briefing sections committed to the confirmation of Christopher Hill to the post. The voting tallied in at 73-23, and critics said his record showed he was an ineffective North Korean diplomat, and that he lacked Middle East experience.

From Baghdad
“There is little ambiguity in President Obama's plan for an accelerated US withdrawal from Iraq,” writes Jane Arraf, in the beginning of her article in the Christian Science Monitor, on whether or not Iraqi forces are ready to tackle the country’s security challenges. The general answer by US sources she speaks to (some of them speaking freely and off-the-record) is just as clear – no.

"The question is can the Iraqis keep it down without us being here, and we would assess right now that they cannot," says a senior US military official, adding that Iraq's security forces "are clearly better than they were, but they still do not have the capability to be their own self-sufficient counterinsurgency force." The lack of intelligence-gathering capability, airpower, and budget shortfalls which threaten to severely limit possible Iraqi troop levels are all named as factors.

Arraf doesn’t speak to any Iraq officials, but the near-uniformity in opinion of the US guys she talks to (while, at the same time, stressing that "there are no current plans to keep American forces here past 2011"), makes its own point.
While the Iraqi Army has become relatively adept at conventional operations and has improved its planning and logistics, much of the drop in attacks over the past year has been achieved through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations increasingly partnered with Iraqi troops but still led by US forces.

Already a hiring freeze by the Iraqi government has stalled plans to increase the size of its security forces from 615,000 to about 646,000.

Iraqi security forces still rely on the US for combat and logistical help, including close air support, communications, intelligence and surveillance, as well as clearance of roadside bombs and medical support.
In the other piece of original Iraq-related reporting today, the New York Times’ Timothy Williams and Tareq Maher have an interesting feature on the foreign workforce in Iraq. “These are not contract workers recruited by American firms like KBR or Halliburton to work at American military cafeterias or to pull guard duty on the perimeter of American bases,” they say, “but men and women who have come to work for Iraqi businesses that would otherwise hire Iraqis.”

As cleaners, cooks, and other positions which many Iraqis may not want to do, despite high levels of unemployment (for all you who think there’s no cultural common ground between Iraqis and Americans) foreigners from places like India, Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia are proving reliable - and what’s more – cheap. “Sometimes I hear loud booms, but I don’t care,” said Zahandwir Aloui, a 25-year-old waiter from Bangladesh. “I like working here.”
Since the 2003 invasion by United States-led forces, few foreigners have strayed outside the heavily secured Green Zone, with the exception of well-armed American soldiers, because foreigners had been targets of Sunni and Shiite militias, which carried out kidnappings and executions. Even though Baghdad is safer now than it was in the first few years following the invasion, most of the recently arrived workers say they do not go far from their workplaces.

Mr. Aloui, the waiter, who earns double what he would at home, lives in a room at a hotel next door to the restaurant (where diners are searched for suicide belts before eating). He says he knows almost nothing about Baghdad aside from the dozen or so steps between the restaurant and the hotel. He has been told not to walk the street alone.

And while he works as many as 15 hours a day, six days a week, for his $250 monthly salary, not including a $50 monthly bonus, the restaurant’s Iraqi-born waiters earn more than double that — even when they work far fewer hours.
The relevant issue of exploitation is brought up, as many of these low-wage workers have found themselves in Iraq with few prospects and needing to take what jobs are offered to them, even if it wasn’t quite what they were promised by the employment companies who brought them. It is worth reading, for a glimpse into an increasingly common part of everyday life in Iraq that many would not expect.

Wall Street Journal, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.

Comments on the US Papers roundup are welcome at


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