BAGHDAD, Iraq—Saddam Hussein's rules for young and ambitious Iraqis were clear: If you want a future, you must join the Baath Party.
Now, as the leaders of the new National Assembly parcel out Cabinet posts according to ethnic group and religious or political affiliation, students and recent college graduates worry that the government will become a collection of fiefdoms in which loyalties matter more than merit.
"I guess now with so many political parties, and the way the different ministries are divided according to sects, one doesn't know which party he should be a member in," said Haider Ali, 24. "I will try my luck. If not, I will go abroad to find a job opportunity."
Ali's worries are one reflection of the broader problems of making a democratic Iraq a unified nation and creating a national identity that supersedes ethnic and religious allegiances.
The Baghdad resident was part of a garlanded caravan of al-Rafidain college seniors who recently made their way, heads bobbing to Arab pop music, to a graduation party in Baghdad's Fardos Square. Despite their celebratory mood, several of them expressed anxiety about their career prospects.
They've reason to be pessimistic. Half of Iraqis are unemployed or underemployed, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and recent college graduates already have been backed into jobs they think are beneath them.
An electrical engineer works in a plastics factory. A woman with a degree in business administration sews clothes to make ends meet. A would-be English teacher has cleaned streets.
They'd all like jobs in the government, which employed most Iraqis under Saddam and is now the homegrown employer with the greatest stability and highest salaries. They complain that they've lost out in the competition for government positions because they haven't paid bribes or don't belong to the right political parties or ethnic groups.
Parties mostly break down along ethnic lines, with Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Kurds forming their own blocs in the National Assembly. Iraq's newly selected leaders have said they'll divide 31 Cabinet posts among those three major groups based on their numbers in parliament.
That's bad news for Sunni job seekers: Sunnis overwhelmingly stayed home from the polls in January's elections and hold only 17 assembly seats.
Students and job seekers swap tales of friends who were told by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to produce letters of recommendation from the Kurdish Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari runs the foreign ministry, which resonates with the sounds of Kurdish rather than Arabic. He's likely to retain the post.
"We know that ministry is for the Kurdish party," said Kareem al-Saadi, 22, a graduating senior at Mustansiriyah University. "When you want to have a job in this ministry, you must get a notification from the Kurdish party." Al-Saadi said it happened in all the ministries.
Hamid al-Bayati, a deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said political parties had recommended candidates for diplomatic posts but he maintained that the ministry hasn't become a stronghold for any one group.
The hiring committee relies on the parties to know who is "trustworthy," he said, because "the last thing we want is infiltration from loyalists of the former regime."
"We try to make it a mix to satisfy all sectors of Iraqi society," said al-Bayati, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major Shiite party. "We always make sure there are Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. And we receive nominations from all different groups."
Still, perceptions of bias run deep.
"The Ministry of Defense is just for those named Shaalan. Health is just for the Dawa party," said Mazen Abd Sadr Mohamed al-Jorani, the would-be English teacher. "I must either get relations or dollars."
In December, an internal auditor found that Health Ministry officials had hired widely on the basis of family, tribal or party ties. Adil Mohsen Abdullah, who was fired last month after making his report public, said there were thousands of unqualified employees throughout the ministry.
"Health is a technical field which needs experts to fill the proper positions," he said in an interview. "And if we keep turning to the tribe or the family, we'll give these posts to the nonqualified people who don't deserve it."
The Commission on Public Integrity, which American administrators created as a watchdog against corruption before they stepped aside last year, has received complaints about government jobs being handed out on the basis of ethnicity or membership in political parties. It hasn't been able to act on the complaints, however.
"The people who complain do not assist us in our investigations because of the security situation," said Judge Radhi Hamdan Radhi, the head of the commission. "They fear revenge if their identity is revealed."
The Labor Ministry runs a center that's supposed to serve—by a resolution of the interim government—as a clearinghouse for government workers, using a database of 650,000 unemployed doctors, engineers, teachers and others.
"They should come to us," said Riyadh Hassan, the head of the center. But "there is not complete control. We send them all our lists and their qualifications, and (they say), `We are sorry. We haven't a job.' Then we find in the papers thousands of teachers have been hired. They've directly employed them."
"Sometimes, it's personal," he said. "Sometimes a person would bring his own people, or his acquaintances, or maybe take money."
Ali Jamil Haleel, a 25-year old waiter with a bachelor's degree in history, founded the General Union of Graduated Students about six months ago to help jobless degree-holders. He said many of them had encountered partisanship.
"Students graduate from a certain branch and want to apply to the suitable ministry. The dominant party would ask for a recommendation from that party," Haleel said.
He said Saddam started the practice of favoritism. "So this thing was planted in people's minds," he said. "So now the parties are acting in the same way. Each party is trying to bring the people of its own sect to its side."
International observers also are worried.
"Sooner or later, this is going to create resentment and tension," said Marina Ottaway, a democracy and Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
(Bahadur reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha al Awsy, Huda Ahmed and a correspondent who couldn't be named for security reasons contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.