BAGHDAD: Haydar Karar spends eight hours a day tidying a carpentry shop and lugging wooden beams, forced like many other Iraqi children into work by poverty and conflict. Now 13, Karar has been working with his carpenter uncle in the capital Baghdad since the age of eight, his childhood marred by the troubles that have ravaged his country. "I was expelled from school because of a fight," he said. "The school didn't want to take me back."

His family had decided to find work for him "to build my future and marry me", added the petite boy, who works from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm every day with a one-hour lunch break. He leans over a wooden armchair to sand it, and then moves around metal trestles before carrying large planks of wood about twice his size. Karar's weekly pay, the equivalent of less than $20, covers his own needs as well as those of his sister. They both live with another uncle.

Children in Iraq work as apprentice mechanics and rubbish collectors, in shisha cafes or hair salons, and washing car windows and selling paper tissues by the roadside. "Child labor is constantly rising," said Hassan Abdel Saheb, in charge of the portfolio at the Iraqi labor and social affairs ministry, citing "wars, conflict and displacement".

Despite its oil riches, nearly one-third of Iraq's 42 million inhabitants live in poverty, according to the United Nations. The country has struggled to regain stability after decades of war and a brutal campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group, which Baghdad declared defeated in late 2017. Iraq still suffers from instability coupled with endemic corruption, and crumbling infrastructure and public services.

Abdel Saheb noted a rise in child labor - officially banned by law before the age of 15 - "specifically in provinces that had been invaded by IS". Employing children is punishable by prison time or a fine, he said, but "with many families left without a breadwinner, mothers have been forced to let children work".

The labor ministry official said a study conducted by his office showed a rise in child labor in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh - whose capital Mosul was once a jihadist stronghold - as well as Baghdad itself. To counter that trend, the government distributes aid to some of Iraq's poorest families, with monthly allowances of between $96 and $250, depending on the number of children.

Miguel Mateos Munoz, spokesman in Iraq for the UN children's agency UNICEF, said poverty and "economic inequality" are among key factors contributing to the rise in child labor in the country. "The last years have created an environment that is leading many children to child labor," he told AFP.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid group noted in late 2022 an "alarming spike" in child labor in Iraq, particularly in war-ravaged Mosul. Some 90 percent of households in the city had "one or more children engaged in labor", according to an IRC survey of 411 families and 265 children. And about 75 percent of these children "reported working in informal and dangerous roles" such as rubbish collection and construction, the group said.

UNICEF has been working with authorities in Baghdad and in the northern autonomous Kurdistan region to support a "system of social protection" that could lift children "out of poverty", Munoz added. He said the UN agency also focuses on developing education and "programs to build skills" to let children delay their entry into the labor force "till they are over 18".

Mohanad Jabbar, 14, earns six dollars a day in a Baghdad workshop that manufactures sieves for the construction industry. Like his older brother, Jabbar has been working since he was seven to help support their family. "I would've liked to study and become an engineer," he said. "But my family needs me." - AFP