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Rebuilding Iraq


With oil-for-food program in limbo, fears grow

By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 4/26/03

    Rebuilding Iraq


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BAGHDAD -- Life under Saddam Hussein came with one precious possession that most Iraqis fear they will lose: the oil card.

The cards entitled each family to free monthly rations of flour, sugar, beans, and other goods under the United Nations-approved oil-for-food program that allowed the government to export limited amounts of oil despite UN trade sanctions as long as the money went to buy food and medicine.

One of the last acts of the Hussein regime was to issue several months' worth of rations in advance just before the war, one reason Iraq so far has avoided a major food crisis. But families say those stores are running out.

The UN Security Council voted on Thursday to extend the program until June 3, but many anxious Iraqis don't know that. The handouts remain suspended as the UN debates whether to lift its sanctions while continuing the food aid.

In the meantime, with most people's jobs and salaries on hold, even middle-class Iraqis are worried about how they will feed themselves in the coming weeks, a serious problem in a country where 24 percent of children are chronically malnourished.

"We can't buy meat," said Rajiha Hatif, 45, who was shopping at the Al Bayaa market with her 7-year-old son for their daily postwar meal of fried potatoes. "Will the coalition support us? Will it really give us something in exchange for our oil?"

More than 90 percent of Iraq's 23 million people depended on the handouts, and 60 percent sold some rations to pay for other essential needs, according to the UN. But the oil-for-food program didn't just fill stomachs, it provided a sense of security and even claimed a place in the culture.

The local grocer in charge of distribution was an important figure in each neighborhood. The rations -- including the soap that everyone called stinky and the milk that was never enough -- were something everyone had in common.

Residents say Hussein's government used the ration program as a way to collect information on people, and to control them by threatening to revoke the rations from people who challenged the regime. But Iraqis, who are now living without electricity, a police force, or any idea when they can go back to work, miss having a stable, if meager, source of sustenance.

"There's nothing to replace it," said Taham Mohammad Kasim, a grocer who distributed the rations to 125 families in the Baghdad neighborhood of Tobchi.

Officials with the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, as well as some nonprofit aid workers, said they want to see food handouts continue temporarily, then taper off to promote a more vibrant economy. But many Iraqis say their fondest wish from a US-administered civil authority is not market freedom, but bigger and better food rations.

"They should include clothes, more dairy products, canned food," said Joseph Tomafaris, 56, a retired television director whose monthly pension is worth less than $1. He looked up at his kitchen ceiling as if seeing into the future, and added, "Maybe a tiny chicken as a gift for Ramadan."

That desire has even translated into a joke: During the 1991 Gulf War, government-organized demonstrators chanted, "Bush, Bush, listen well: We all love Saddam Hussein." Now, in a phrase that rhymes with the original in Arabic, people say, "Bush, Bush is a good man. Make one ration into two."

Aid groups from Arab and Western countries, as well as the US military and the UN, are bringing in food, but the flow is not large enough to keep up with the need, according to officials with the World Food Program, which oversaw the oil-for-food distribution under Hussein.

The UN program's 700 international staff have not yet returned to Baghdad, where their headquarters and food warehouses are guarded by US troops; a delegation headed for northern Iraq this week by land when coalition forces denied them permission to fly.

Some Baghdad food markets are springing back into life; the Al Bayaa market bustled with shiny fresh fish, tomatoes, a pickup full of chickens.

But Hatif, who kept her compact disc store closed in recent days because of fears of looting and violence, could afford none of the food products. Even as she bought potatoes from Mohammed Harbi -- who said he, too, was having trouble feeding his family of nine -- she found prices had risen by a third in two weeks.

Tomafaris's wife, Mariam, said she cannot afford to buy the green vegetables or vitamins her pregnant daughter-in-law needs, and struggles to keep up with her teenage sons' demand for two eggs a day.

She has closed the food shop she runs outside the family home in the Baghdad neighborhood of Hai al Alam, because she can't afford to stock and guard it. She got through the last month with the help of $100 from relatives abroad, but can't count on another installment since there's no working post office.

"God be with the people who have nobody abroad and no savings," she said.

Recently, she went to the neighborhood mosque, where wealthy worshipers had brought food for their neighbors, including Christians like her family. But the handout was unorganized, and stronger people grabbed all the food.

The mosque's leader, Haji Saadi, said he would not approach international aid groups on behalf of his community. "We don't want to go and beg," he said. "The one who wants to help will come to us and help us. One should not go and humiliate himself to ask for such help."

And in his bakery on the other side of Baghdad, Rahim Alwan Shlit, 52, has cut production so low that he's not sure how he will pay his rent. With limited electricity from a generator and difficulty getting flour, he has stopped making sweets and uses just two 110-pound bags of flour a day, down from 12.

"All the customers are pleased that I didn't close, when many bigger businesses did," he said. As his visitors departed, he called after them: "I'm sorry I have nothing to give you."

Anne Barnard can be reached at

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