TIKRIT, Iraq — Qahtan Kareem is a businessman whose main business — the United States — is leaving town. He made his fortune buying and reselling scrap and surplus from military bases. Now, as the American Army withdraws from Iraq, he is grim about the future of his company and its 430 employees.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he said, sitting in an office lined with framed photographs of him with American officers. “There are no jobs outside American camps.”
While the political and security consequences of the American withdrawal have yet to be fully resolved, its economic effects have already taken a sharp toll on the tens of thousands of Iraqis who earned their livelihoods, sometimes at great risk, working for the military and the legions of American civilian and defense contractors.
They are now stranded between worlds, struggling to find new jobs in a country where about one in four people is unemployed, and scorned by those who view working for Westerners as treachery. Dozens have been killed, and few have been able to take advantage of American programs to relocate endangered Iraqi allies, discouraged by long waiting lists and tangled rules for applying.
“We’ve been left behind,” said Sayf Alaa Kamel, 22, who said he left school to work as a painter for an American contractor, but lost his job earlier this year.
The number of Iraqis employed by the American military has plummeted from 44,000 in January 2009, before the United States began to reduce its forces, to about 10,500 now, according to the military’s figures. The number of American-financed contractors and grant recipients fell by 22 percent just during the summer, according to a report by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
Those numbers are likely to keep falling as the United States continues what one military official called a “glide path” out of Iraq.
Layoffs and economic dislocation are natural consequences of the ebb of war, and their ravages in Tikrit, a sunbaked town 100 miles north of Baghdad best known as the home of Saddam Hussein, are mirrored in cities and towns across Iraq in varying degrees. High unemployment, especially among the young men who are favored insurgent recruiting targets, poses a security risk that threatens to undo hard-fought gains.
Contracts are expiring and reconstruction money is almost completely spent. The 49,700 remaining American troops need fewer Iraqis to paint gymnasiums, lay bricks or serve as links to local communities.
The newly jobless Iraqis say they are struggling to find work in the country’s anemic private sector or bribe their way into a government job. Some have moved their families to boom towns in the Kurdish north or the oil-rich south.
Those who fared especially well during the war are living on the money they saved. Others, awash in debt, have sold the refrigerators and the laptops they bought with American paychecks.
Mr. Kareem is planning to close two of his five junkyards, one near Baghdad and the other in Anbar Province in the west, putting about 120 people out of work. He hopes to build a $4 million recycling center near Tikrit, but is uncertain when he will break ground.
“We don’t know what’s in store for us,” he said. “Our business will close. Our employees will be out of work. They’ll be back to where they started, and terrorists will see this and take advantage.”
In Baghdad, the owners of the Zanubia transportation company said they once employed 55 drivers, engineers, electricians, security guards and other staff members to haul supplies for contractors working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the United Nations. Drivers were shot at and kidnapped, and the company’s owners received death threats. But the money rolled in. At its peak — “the golden age,” one of the owners said — Zanubia had contracts worth about $1 million a month.
“There were people who hated the Americans,” said Ayad Faraj, 34, a partner in the company. “We didn’t see them as an occupation. It was in our interest to work with them.”
Business has slowed to about $20,000 a month, and Zanubia has downsized its headquarters from a large house to a dingy office. The company has sold its trucks and surplus goods, and its owners say they are barely hanging on.
“It’s almost finished,” said Sami Nasir, the other partner. “Two years ago, we were so busy. Now, days pass without us doing anything.”
In the dusty and forlorn village of Asakr, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, an American military camp changed the fortunes of the town and its people.
Many of the 1,000 or so residents live in rows of nearly identical cinderblock homes that get about four hours of electricity a day. The streets are rutted dirt, there is no secondary school and the most prominent architectural feature is a pyramid-shaped bunker.
But since 2003, Camp Speicher, the headquarters of American forces in northern Iraq, has offered a rare opportunity. Residents said they would hitch a five-minute ride to work every morning and spend the day installing electrical cables, repairing cars or interpreting Arabic. Work at the base — a small town with its own airfield, soccer stadium, shops and American fast-food restaurants — paid reliably, and the Americans treated them professionally.
A former cleaner and laborer for American contractors, Ismail Esam Mohadeen, 26, sat in his living room, surrounded by a television, a gilded tea set, an armoire and stuffed animals his children had scattered. “This is all from the work I did,” he said.
Now, the base’s total population has fallen by more than half to 4,000, according to military officials there, and its former local employees are sorting out conflicted feelings of gratitude, nostalgia and frustration.
“The money was so much better, and the work was actually comfortable,” Mr. Mohadeen said. “We thought we’d have jobs. We were there for eight years. We didn’t see this coming.”
Some still have framed letters hanging on their bedroom walls, signed by Army officers praising their work and supporting them for American visas. They still remember the English they learned on base, but with no one to talk to, their vocabulary is fading.
Mohamed Jabar, 24, who recently lost his job as a driver earning $800 a month for an Iraqi subcontractor, is among those trying to scrub away the stigma of their former work.
A native of the restive, and heavily Sunni, Diyala Province, Mr. Jabar said that insurgents threatened him and interrogated his neighbors about his employers, driving him from the home he shared with his mother. But newly unemployed, he returned to beg forgiveness of local militants and ask that his name be struck from their hit lists. He said he promised them he was done with the Americans.
“I went through all that danger and risked my life,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it, but what was the alternative? I got a little money. Now life must go on.”