BAQUBA, Dec 27 (IPS) - The Iraqi government announcement that monthly food rations will be cut by half has left many Iraqis asking how they can survive.
The government also wants to reduce the number of people depending on the rationing system by five million by June 2008.
Iraq's food rations system was introduced by the Saddam Hussein government in 1991 in response to the UN economic sanctions. Families were allotted basic foodstuffs monthly because the Iraqi Dinar and the economy collapsed.
The sanctions, imposed after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, were described as "genocidal" by Denis Halliday, then UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. Halliday quit his post in protest against the U.S.-backed sanctions.
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The sanctions killed half a million Iraqi children, and as many adults, according to the UN. They brought malnutrition, disease, and lack of medicines. Iraqis became nearly completely reliant on food rations for survival. The programme has continued into the U.S.-led occupation.
But now the U.S.-backed Iraqi government has announced it will halve the essential items in the ration because of "insufficient funds and spiralling inflation."
The cuts, which are to be introduced in the beginning of 2008, have drawn widespread criticism. The Iraqi government is unable to supply the rations with several billion dollars at its disposal, whereas Saddam Hussein was able to maintain the programme with less than a billion dollars.
"In 2007, we asked for 3.2 billion dollars for rationing basic foodstuffs," Mohammed Hanoun, Iraq's chief of staff for the ministry of trade told al-Jazeera. "But since the prices of imported foodstuff doubled in the past year, we requested 7.2 billion dollars for this year. That request was denied."
The trade ministry is now preparing to slash the list of subsidised items by half to five basic food items, "namely flour, sugar, rice, oil, and infant milk," Hanoun said.
The imminent move will affect nearly 10 million people who depend on the rationing system. But it has already caused outrage in Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad.
"The monthly food ration was the only help from the government," local grocer Ibrahim al-Ageely told IPS. "It was of great benefit for the families. The food ration consisted of two kilos of rice, sugar, soap, tea, detergent, wheat flour, lentils, chick-peas, and other items for every individual."
Another grocer said the food ration was the "life of all Iraqis; every month, Iraqis wait in queues to receive their food rations."
According to an Oxfam International report released in July this year, "60 percent (of Iraqis) currently have access to rations through the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS), down from 96 percent in 2004."
The report said that "43 percent of Iraqis suffer from absolute poverty," and that according to some estimates over half the population are now without work. "Children are hit the hardest by the decline in living standards. Child malnutrition rates have risen from 19 percent before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to 28 percent now."
While salaries have increased since the invasion of March 2003, they have not kept pace with the dramatic increase in the prices of food and fuel.
"My salary is 280 dollars, and I have six children," 49-year-old secondary school teacher Ali Kadhim told IPS. "The increase in my salary was neutralised by an increase in the price of food. I cannot afford to buy the foodstuffs in addition to the other necessary expenses of life."
"The high increase in food prices led people to condemn the delays in the ration every month," Salah Kadhim, an employee in the directorate-general of health for Diyala province told IPS. "The jobless just cannot afford to buy food."
"The food ration still represents a big part of the domestic budget," Muneer Lafta, a 51-year-old employee at the health directorate told IPS. Without the ration, she said, families have to go to the market. Because Iraqi families are large, usually six to 12 people, shopping for food is simply unaffordable.
"I and my wife have five boys and six girls, so the ration costs a lot when it has to be bought," 55-year-old resident Khalaf Atiya told IPS. "I cannot afford food and also other expenses like study, clothes, doctors."
People in Baquba, living with violence and joblessness for long, are now preparing for this new twist.
"No security, no food, no electricity, no trade, no services. So life is good," said one resident, who would not give his name.
Many fear the food ration cuts can spark unrest. "The government will commit a big mistake, because providing enough food ration could compensate the government's mistakes in other fields like security," a local physician told IPS. "The Iraq will now feel that he, or she, is of no value to the government."
Ahmed, a correspondent in Iraq's Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East
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