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Thousands of poor Iraqis queue for oil jobs

WITH a clutch of deals between Iraq and global oil majors in the pipeline, unemployed Iraqis hope to finally benefit from their country's oil wealth.

Thousands have been queuing this month to apply for 1,670 new jobs at Iraq's South Oil Company (SOC), which oversees most of Iraqi oil exports and is gearing up to work with some of the world's biggest oil firms.

Overnight lines, angry crowds and scuffles with police are a taster of what Britain's BP, China's CNPC, Italy's ENI and others may face when they start work in Iraq, which has seen little foreign investment since the 2003 US invasion.

As part of contracts to rehabilitate Iraq's crumbling oil sector, foreign oil majors must employ Iraqis wherever possible, and set aside US$5 million for training.

At one job application centre in Basra, a decrepit city of sewage puddles and slums but also the oil exporting hub for the world's third-largest crude reserves, men huddle in a vast queue at night, waiting to apply.

"I'm just one of the thousands of young men here. I graduated six years ago and I still have no job. I've been here since yesterday morning," said Majid Ziad, in a queue some had joined days earlier. One man stood in line in muddy bare feet.

The next day, some jobseekers fainted as others surged against a security cordon, police beating back the crowd.

In the past two weeks, Iraq has approved a deal with BP and CNPC to develop the super-giant Rumaila oilfield, and a deal with a group led by Italy's ENI for the Zubair field is seen as close. Consortiums led by Russia LUKOIL and US firm Exxon Mobil are competing for the West Qurna field.

The millions of extra barrels of crude produced could vault Iraq to third from 11th position among global oil producers, and shake up the balance of oil power in the Middle East.

Iraq, now governed by its Shiite Muslim majority after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, derives almost all its income from oil, and is desperate to rebuild after years of war.

Officials hope higher oil revenues will revive the wider economy and provide jobs to steer Iraq's unemployed away from a well-funded insurgency.

"I welcome the foreign firms coming to Basra, but I will not accept them bringing foreign employees at all -- I'll protest if they do," said Saadeq Jaafar, who applied for a job with the South Oil Company.

The oil deals are beset by other political and legal risks, and are still far from finalized.

Elections are due in January, and analysts fear the contracts may not be respected by a new government. Some fear the polls may trigger a spike in violence -- attacks have fallen sharply in Iraq, but bombings and shootings are still common.

For Reza Bidden, who lives in one of the many slums that sit on top of or near Basra's lucrative oilfields, any benefit from oil riches was still a distant prospect.

"This is our living, our children are out from morning till night collecting drink cans," he said, standing among breeze block and corrugated iron huts near an open lake of sewage.

"Is this the country of oil?"


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