Iraqis fear a future without rations

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Posted by Sadie from D007115.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Thursday, August 07, 2003 at 4:37PM :

Food shipments meet targets, but Iraqis fear a future without rations
Report, IRIN
6 August 2003

BAGHDAD , 6 August (IRIN) - As the sun blazes down on the small street in Baghdad's Al-Washash district, two women wait quietly for their monthly food ration. "Without the ration we couldn't survive. If they stopped it the black market prices would immediately go up and we wouldn't be able to get anything," one of them tells IRIN. "I have a family of five to feed. My husband died a long time ago and I'm responsible for them."

As the friendly food agent doles out the regulation quantities of flour, rice, sugar, tea, beans, oil, milk and soap, the second woman is even blunter. "If there's no ration we would die - we would starve," she says. "Please don't stop the rations. We don't have any other way of getting food."

This small scene - an event replicated every day all over the country - exemplifies a paradox of life in postwar Iraq. The delivery of free food to every one of the nation's 26 million people is a stunning achievement. The World Food Programme (WFP) describes it as the largest food-aid operation in history. But at the same time, this very success is raising questions about how Iraqis will cope if, as is planned, the ration system is dismantled and a free-market system is established in its place.

Rationing evolved during the 13 years that Iraq was under international sanctions. Forty-four thousand government food agents were set up around the country, and every family was provided with a "food basket" once a month. After a brief interruption, the operation survived the war and is now being coordinated by the WFP. IRIN visited one of Baghdad's 12 vast warehouses, where a small army of men and women worked in the sweltering heat to load grain, sacks of split peas, boxes of powdered milk and soap onto trucks for distribution around the city.

Across the country, in each governorate, silos and warehouses store and then distribute a continuous supply of goods brought in by thousands of trucks. The food comes from all over the world - half a million tonnes is enough to feed the whole population for three months - and the WFP is well on course to meet its target of bringing in 2.2 mt by the end of October.

The other good news on the food front is that the UN is working hard to release US $10 billion worth of contracts on goods that were due to have been imported under the Oil-For-Food Programme, but were stranded in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Kuwait when the war broke out in mid-March. Among these goods are vitally needed agricultural products.

"What we are doing right now is sending lists to be processed on a priority basis, saying these are items that are urgently needed," said Adnan Jarrar of the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.

Some imports were also held up under the sanctions regime because they were seen as possible "dual-use" items; in other words, they might have been adapted for military purposes such as for making chemical weapons. Such imports included fertilisers and pesticides. Now, said Jarrar, all these had been cleared. "As you know, we are approaching the next planting season, and $170 million was allocated by the UN to buy 35,000 mt of fertiliser, and seeds of course, to help the farmers," he added.

Other goods that have now been cleared include spare parts for the oil and electricity industries - both absolutely crucial to the country's economy. The expectation is that, as Iraq's oil production picks up and generates income, a market economy can be established in the country. Paving the way for this, operations like the Oil-For-Food Programme and the nationwide rationing system will be phased out.

For many Iraqis, this is an unnerving, if not frightening prospect. Khansa Hussein of the WFP says her organisation has been interviewing Iraqi families in recent weeks about their food needs. "There are many, many difficulties facing them now. They are not ready to give up the rations right now. They will need at least one to two years to transfer to a free market system," she told IRIN.

"It is very difficult after 13 years of sanctions. You don't think you are able to pay for the market. If the rations stop you will immediately have a black market for food and this is one of the things that really terrifies households." she added.

A market economy may be on the agenda, and may well be the inevitable future for Iraq, but for the women at the Al-Washash ration outlet it is a transition to be feared.

-- Sadie
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