BAGHDAD // Iraq's leaders hope the country's still largely untapped oil wealth can one day rival Saudi Arabia and provide a decent living to its citizens after years of conflict and chaos.
But for Abbas Mohammed, 12, and his family, it is used plastic bottles and empty aluminium cans that keep them alive. Abbas spends his school summer holidays picking through a Baghdad rubbish dump so he can sell the discarded items and help support his family.
In the refuse dump near Abbas's home in the Iraqi capital's impoverished district of Sadr City, men, women and children swarm over the stinking piles of debris.
Abbas, a slim boy dressed in grubby clothes, runs with other children to greet the arrival of lorries carrying fresh rubbish, waiting anxiously for them to unload so they can start raking through the refuse despite the smell and the dirt.
"We earn our living through this rubbish," shrugged Abbas, holding a big sack and a metal hook.
"We start work in the morning, we collect Pepsi cans, plastic bottles and then we sell them. I have been working in this place since I was three years old," he said.
Sadr City, a warren of narrow streets and low-built slums housing more than three million people, is a sprawling area of poverty east of the Tigris river in the Iraqi capital.
Once known as Saddam City, the Shiite stronghold suffered years of neglect under the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq, which is still struggling to emerge from years of war, chaos and sectarian bloodshed triggered by the US invasion in 2003, has an official unemployment rate of 15 per cent and another 28 per cent of the workforce are in part-time jobs.
Despite its huge untapped oil and gas reserves and steadily rising oil output and revenue, 23 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, according to officials.
For Abbas, life in Sadr City means long days during his school holidays scrabbling through the refuse in the scorching summer heat before selling his daily haul to a middleman.
He sells each kilogram of plastic bottles or soda cans for 250 Iraqi dinars (eight fils), earning between 2,000 to 4,000 dinars (Dh6-Dh13) a day.
His mother and one of his brothers work with him in and around Sadr City. The three of them bring in around Dh920 to Dh1,470 a month, meagre earnings to support a large family. The brothers only work during school holidays, but other children at the dump have left school behind to work full-time gathering rubbish.
Abbas's mother, Zubaida Khazaal, a mother of 12, said they were obliged to be pickers because they are poor and her husband is unemployed because he cannot work.
"We do not have anything, we live in a mud house and my husband is sick," said Mrs Khazaal who wore an cloth mask against the stench as she emptied a sack of bottles.
"We wish the government could help us."
Popular anger over power cuts, food ration shortages, corruption and government ineffectiveness is heating up the political climate in Iraq as the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki's shaky cross-sectarian coalition considers whether to ask US troops to stay on past an end-year withdrawal deadline.
Sadr City is a power base for Moqtada Al Sadr, a fiercely anti-American Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army insurgents once battled US and Iraqi troops during the peak of the sectarian conflict in 2006-2007. He opposes US troops staying on and has threatened "military resistance" if they do.
Security officials expect insurgents and militias to try to test Iraq's forces when the US troops prepare to leave.
Abbas wears a glove to protect himself from sharp objects.
From the rubbish heap of Sadr City, however, Abbas dreams of a better future, when he can quit his rubbish-picking job and spend more time on school work. "I want to complete my studies," he said, "and become a teacher."