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Food Shortages Gnaw at Iraqis' Stomachs, Morale

Shrinking subsidized rations are blamed on corruption, security problems or the U.S. One struggling family finds 'hope is small.'

June 16, 2005|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — After his American employers left, and monthly food rations began to shrink, Hussein Hadi started selling his furniture. His bed was the last thing to go.

Now Hadi, his wife, sister, mother, two brothers, three children and a nephew sleep on his living room floor in Baghdad, their blankets sewn from flour sacks.

Some nights, they fall asleep hungry. "Hope is small," said his wife, Zainab.

Like many Iraqis, the Hadis depend on food rations distributed by the government. Sometimes the sugar they receive has been hardened by rainwater and the rice is crawling with maggots. The soap is so harsh that it causes rashes. On the rare occasions when the Hadis received all the items -- sugar, rice, flour, baby milk, tea, vegetable oil and a few other essentials -- they considered themselves lucky.

The U.N. World Food Program, which monitors the distribution of rations, recently reported "significant countrywide shortfalls in rice, sugar, milk and infant formula." Families in Baghdad haven't received sugar or baby milk since January. Newspapers have also begun reporting that the tea and flour handouts contain metal filings and that people have fallen ill after consuming food rations.

Officials with the Trade Ministry, which is in charge of distributing the rations, said the media have created the crisis. But they have refused to release results of the tests for contamination they said they are doing.

Retail agents who sell the food baskets say the ministry is corrupt, a charge supported by Radhi Radhi, the government's anti-corruption chief. Radhi said in a recent interview that Trade Ministry officials had spread rumors about contaminated food to discredit the current flour supplier and renegotiate the contract.

Frustration, Suspicion

Some agents speculate that ministry employees have added metal filings to cheat on the parcels' weight. The same employees also sell tea and flour on the black market, agents say.

Like the Hadis, many Iraqi families rely on the heavily subsidized rations, which were previously distributed under the United Nations' oil-for-food program to mitigate the effect of sanctions after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the program was handed over to the Ministry of Trade.

More than half of Iraq's population lives below the poverty line. The country's median income fell from $255 in 2003 to about $144 in 2004, according to a recent U.N. survey. Families buy the food baskets for a few dollars at special state-licensed shops.

Ahmed Mukhtar, director general of the ministry, blamed the shortage of rations on security threats that created bottlenecks at the borders with Jordan, Syria and Turkey.

"We're attempting to make sure the supplies are safely delivered," Mukhtar said. "Anything that disturbs the food supplies is a critical situation."

Zainab Hadi said she and other women have been forced to buy food at the market, pushing prices up. The cost of tea and flour has almost tripled. At local food markets, a 35-pound can of vegetable oil, which just a few months ago cost $4 -- a little more than an average day's wage -- now costs $12.

Over the doorway of the Hadis' tiny cinderblock house, a small, blue ceramic plaque offers praise to God. The 10 family members share two rooms. The upstairs living room doubles as a bedroom.

In their kitchen, a poster of the Shiite Muslim martyr Hussein shares pride of place with a world map. The fridge is largely empty. Sprite and Coke bottles filled with tap water share shelf space with medicine to relieve the aching joints of Hadi's widowed mother.

Long before he went to work for the American military as an electrical engineer, Hadi fought with the Iraqi army in the war against Iran in the 1980s. A conscript, he and 15 comrades refused to join a particularly bloody offensive, he said. After they were brought from the front lines to Baghdad, nine were executed.

"We asked them, 'Show mercy,' " he said, lifting his camouflage T-shirt, a gift from the Americans. Saddam Hussein's torturers struck him with thick electrical cords, he said, leaving rope-like scars across his chest.

When U.S. troops entered Baghdad, Hadi stood in the streets, clapping. His daughter Mina came into the world a few days later, when American promises of freedom and prosperity were still fresh and Hadi's hopes were still high. Mina was born prematurely.

Hadi disappeared into the back of the house, then reemerged, beaming. He clutched a neatly folded blue envelope and pulled out an American-made Certificate of Appreciation thanking him for serving the coalition forces. The envelope also contained a medal.

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