HAMYYA, Iraq â€” Tawfiq Jamil hasn’t worked since Saddam Hussein’s government fell more than two years ago.
A former taxi driver, the 28-year-old was forced to sell his car after the war to try to provide for his wife and seven children, and hasn’t been able to find a new job since.
Over the months, his daily routine has become depressingly familiar â€” he leaves home each morning to walk to a nearby coffee shop where he sits and thinks about his future while playing cards with other young men in the same predicament.
Then recently, Jamil and some of the others came to the same conclusion â€” things were so desperate they decided it was time to apply for probably the most dangerous job in the world.
It was time to join the Iraqi police force.
“I have submitted an application to be recruited into the police, it’s the only job I can get,” Jamil said as he puffed hard on another cigarette.
Along the main street in Hamyya, a small town 60km (40 miles) south of Baghdad, dozens of young men sit sipping Turkish coffee or sugary tea with the same thoughts on their minds.
A recent survey by Iraq’s planning ministry found that more than 50 per cent of Iraqis were unemployed, most of them young men frustrated at the lack of post-war progress and desperate for anything that will provide an income.
With their chance of getting factory work or a similar job next to zero given the state of Iraq’s economy, security is about the only industry where there’s a demand for labour.
“I had to sell my car after the war because we had no cash, and now we’ve run out of all the money and there isn’t an income, how can I feed my children?” Jamil said angrily as he explained his decision to apply for the force.
It wasn’t a simple one to make â€” over the past two years, well over 1,000 Iraqi police officers have been killed in drive-by shootings, car bombs and other insurgent attacks.
There is no precise count, but figures compiled by icasualties.org, a website that tracks deaths, show that more than 600 police and soldiers have died in the past three months alone.
Yet despite the horrific risks the job carries, the police remains one of the few options for young men to earn an income.
“I know it’s a job sought with blood, but better than staying at home with empty pockets,” Thaer Aoun, a father of eight, said while sitting in the same coffee shop waiting to hear whether he had been accepted.
“Any job in Iraq can be risky and deadly. I know joining the police may lead to my death.”
At around $350 a month, the police force salary is considered good, enough to buy food and clothing for a family of up to 10, the would-be recruits said.
The impulse to enlist comes largely from the financial incentive, but there is pride too, with some of the men saying they feel an obligation to defend their town, and by extension the country, against insurgents.
That’s understandable given that over the past year Hamyya, which sits in a volatile region dubbed the “Triangle of Death” because of the high incidence of attacks, has seen a spate of killings at the hands of mostly Sunni Arab insurgents. Ali Salman, the head of the local council, said nearly two dozen people in the isolated Shiite town had been killed.
While joining the police may greatly increase the chance that a young man ends up dying, it can also, perversely, serve to ensure that his family has enough to survive.
Last year, Iraq’s interim government introduced a law providing a payment of one million Iraqi dinars (around $700) to the families of police officers killed in the line of duty.
Families also receive the deceased’s full salary until what would have been his 63rd birthday. While it’s not often mentioned by prospective recruits, it can be an incentive.
“We have no factories and no money, the police pays well,” said Abbas Mohammed, 21, another would-be policeman in Hamyya.
“Our town is becoming safer but all the men here are unemployed. I want to join the police and I’m not afraid, I will do a good thing for my country too.”