Experts debate plan to develop jobs programme for Iraqis

WASHINGTON (AP) — Just as debate rages over sending more US troops to Iraq, there are differing views about whether economic incentives such as micro-loans and US-funded jobs programmes would coax fighters to trade guns for tools.

Some reconstruction experts say giving Iraqis jobs that include clearing streets and fixing water and sanitation systems would produce little economic benefit for a country on the brink of all-out civil war.

Others say civilian jobs programmes — an idea President George W. Bush is considering — are designed to build security. Only when violence is under control, they say, can business flourish.

Details have not ben disclosed about the economic incentives Bush will announce as early as Wednesday. But those familiar with the plan say he is favouring short-term jobs programmes, extending micro-loans to small business and increasing the amount of money that military commanders can spend quickly on local projects to improve the daily lives of Iraqis.

“Job creation is the most promising,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t know why we haven’t done it before.

“It’s not the best way to build a new economy, but we need to address security even if that doesn’t conform to Econ 101.” Military analysts say Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who recently finished his tour as the No. 2 general in Iraq, has recommended a short-term jobs programme.

In a classified memo Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote two days before he resigned as defence secretary, he told the president: “Initiate a massive programme for unemployed youth. It would have to be run by US forces, since no other organisation could do it.” Keith Crane, a senior economist at the RAND Corp., is sceptical because such programmes employ insurgents but have little effect on their political activities. “In some instances, insurgents have participated in make-work schemes during the day, then fought the coalition at night,” he says.

Bush also is considering allocating more money for a programme established in 2003 to give field commanders money to solve local problems quickly — and show American compassion and good will. The programme was allocated $753 million in the 2006 budget year.

The Iraq Study Group recommended that Bush find ways to give US officials in Iraq the authority and flexibility to quickly fund projects that would help rebuild the nation.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the president is expected to propose a significant increase in discretionary funds available for the type of activities under the commanders” program. But he said the real question is how much and who would hand it out.

“The difficulty you have with almost everything that comes out of the Bush administration is that there’s a concept, but there’s never a plan and there’s almost never any real details in it,” he said.

Crane, an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, said it is unclear how effective this money is in countering the insurgency or fostering conditions for economic growth and permanent employment.

He said funds in the military commanders’ programme are best used in moderation because commanders are not specialists in development projects.

“In some cases, the commanders have been manipulated by the local sheikhs, in essence ripped off,” he said.

On the positive side, he said, commanders often have a good idea, after talking with Iraqis, about what is most needed — or even what would help soothe their devastation and loss.

“A lot of the money has been used by commanders to compensate people whose homes have been destroyed,” Crane said. “Commanders have ended up paying Iraqis for pets that have been killed as well.” In Najaf, one coalition commander shelled out $100  for the death of a dog, he said.

As Bush prepares to detail his economic incentives, the Pentagon is moving ahead with a programme to help reopen factories that were owned by Saddam Hussein’s government and abandoned after the US-led invasion in March 2003.

Defence officials have declined to identify the facilities for fear the factories, or their employees, could be attacked. 

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