BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Like most Iraqi university students, Dalia Muthanna is more concerned about finding a job than worrying about bomb attacks or a return of sectarian fighting in her homeland.
More than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, young people are weary of war and more interested in discussing how the country is going to get back on its feet and rebuild its battered infrastructure.
Their biggest worry and frustration is finding jobs.
“Any student you talk to will tell you that he or she dreams of graduating and getting a job, or travelling. But talking about the wars and sectarian issues we went through, they won’t discuss them,” said Muthanna, a 20-year-old computer studies student at Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University.
“We rarely speak of these issues, as we talked about them in the past, and we have suffered enough because of them. We try not to speak about issues like war,” she said.
Iraq’s official unemployment rate stands at 15 percent although the real figure is believed to be around 30 percent. Around 60 percent of the population relies on a government national food ration programme.
The high level of unemployment fuels concerns about frustrated young people turning towards militias and insurgent groups, which remain capable of lethal attacks in Iraq, although overall violence has subsided from the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-7.
The country needs massive investment in every sector. Private industry remains relatively small compared to state-owned enterprises and the government is still the biggest employer. Iraq depends on oil exports for 95 percent of government revenues.
Mehdi al-Alak, a deputy planning minister and head of the statistics office, has said at least 25 percent of Iraqis aged 16-29 are unemployed.
“MORE OPEN TO OUTSIDE WORLD”
Some Iraqi students said there was evidence of influence and recruitment by insurgents’ groups at universities.
But they said most young Iraqis saw campus as a place where they could escape from sectarian issues and violence and talk more about the latest fashion and art.
“After the fall of the (Saddam Hussein) regime, there was the influence of a certain Islamic sect on the university,” said oil engineering student Ammar Naiem, 22.
“There are some who join it for benefits and some join it because of their beliefs. But they can’t divide the students … Religion should be out of the university campus in general.”
Naiem declined to name the sect concerned, saying he feared retribution. In the still charged sectarian atmosphere of Iraq, religious and political groups compete for supporters among the country’s disgruntled and restless youth.
Dr Qassim Shakir, head of the geography department at Mustansiriya’s Arab and International Studies centre, said Iraqi youth were able to move away from the past by making connections with other countries and their young people through Facebook and the Internet.
“Most of them (students) are liberal. They are not conservative,” he said. “The Internet has become a connecting point between the youth of the world. The young men learn a lot from other people’s cultures and civilisations.”
“Now the university student spends at least 3-4 hours a day surfing on the Internet to acquire information … They are now more open to the outside world,” Shakir said.
Like the rest of the Arab world this year, Iraq has not been immune to popular protests that have mainly been organised through social media platforms like Facebook.
Although Iraqis have not called for a complete overhaul of their democratically-elected cross-sectarian government, many have voiced frustrations over a lack of basic services and jobs.
Iraq’s five-year economic development plan, which aims to create 3 to 4 million new jobs by 2014, has done little to ease such concerns.
Critics say the ambitious job-creation goal seems to exist only on paper and shows little sign of becoming reality. For example, they say, the ongoing expansion of the oil sector has not yet created the surge in jobs for Iraqis that was promised.
“The problem, we, the youth, suffer is that when we graduated we don’t get a job,” said 21-year-old Muhammad Sameer Abbas, a second-year arts student studying French. “What is the government doing?”