Hundreds of Iraqis gain vocational skills, but future of program is uncertain
TIKRIT, Iraq — The whir of buzzsaws and whoosh of welders fills a collection of metal sheds and wooden workshops on the edge of Contingency Base Speicher, a U.S. military base near Tikrit.
Checkered red scarves poked out of the face masks of the Iraqis welding together large metal boxes.
The Iraqi-Based Industrial Zone trade school here, built almost entirely by its students, represents one of the few paths to employment in the Tikrit area.
Like much of Iraq, the Tikrit area suffers from massive unemployment. With U.S. forces pulling back from cities by the end of June and set to leave Iraq entirely by the end of 2011, it remains to be seen whether the Iraqis’ newly acquired skills will translate to jobs when there are no more bases to maintain.
The students work here as apprentices and earn a wage as they learn trades such as carpentry, welding and small engine repair from employees of Kellogg, Brown and Root, a major military contractor. Upon graduation from the six-month program, the Iraqis are offered on-base jobs in their fields of study.
Each morning before 7 a.m., the students line up at the base entrance, often behind hundreds of other cars, and undergo arduous security checks just to get to the training.
More than 100 Iraqi graduates of the program work on the base and 92 more are in training, officials said. The Army is working with KBR to expand the program at Speicher and fill more jobs currently held by workers from other countries, mirroring what several other American bases have done, said Capt. Adam McCombs, 26, with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division Brigade Support Battalion.
McCombs, who oversees the program for the Army, said most graduates take jobs on the base because of lack of work in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and a region whose inhabitants relied on jobs in the Baathist government before the U.S. invasion. He says the training can help rebuild the local economy when U.S. forces leave. But that is under the presumption that jobs can be found off base.
"We hope they take those skills back into the community and start their own businesses," McCombs said.
KBR employees declined to be interviewed for this article, citing company policy.
The plan echoes efforts at other U.S. bases in Iraq. At Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province, for example, members of a U.S. provincial reconstruction team have been negotiating to have a cooperative of local Iraqi contractors provide workers for all the civilian jobs on the base. Many of those jobs are now held by "third country nationals," workers imported from such countries as Uganda and Sri Lanka.
Since the beginning of the war, hundreds of thousands of contractors — American and foreign — have worked at U.S. bases. They’ve provided everything from security to laundry services to working in dining halls. Now, American officials see the contract positions as a way to help alleviate some of the lingering problems in Iraqi towns that have seen increased security.
The program in Tikrit is based on "on-the-job" training where students learn by working on the training center’s electrical and heating and cooling systems, fixing engines of vehicles that are used on base, and building the wood sheds that make up much of the training center.
Nearly every student interviewed said they could not find work off the base.
"I need to help my family because I am poor," said Sulaiman, 18, who, like nearly every Iraqi interviewed, only gave his first name for fear of reprisals for working with Americans.
Ashur, a 46-year-old Sunni, said he fled Balad when Shiites there began targeting Sunnis. He says he is very excited about the program, but his weathered face drops when asked what he will do when the U.S. military withdraws.
"We feel too bad when we think about when the United States soldiers leave," he said, "because the Iraq government isn’t too good now."