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DISTRIBUTION DELAYS BLAMED

Amid rationing, Iraqis face more shortages

BAGHDAD -- Iraq is suffering a shortage of state-supplied wheat, sugar, and rice because of logistics and security problems, officials and traders said yesterday.

Most Iraqis, already in the grip of a fuel and electricity crisis, have depended on monthly rations since the Saddam Hussein era under a system meant to lessen the impact of the 1990-2003 sanctions that helped destroy the economy.

"We have been warning Iraqi officials for months that Iraq was heading for shortages. They insisted on middlemen and companies that cannot deliver," a market insider said. "They blame security. But there are 1,000 trucks that enter Iraq from Jordan every day alone and yet wheat shipments sit in the port of Aqaba for eternity."

Food is still available on the market, but the prices of some staples have doubled as government warehouses run low on stock.

The problems could hurt the US-backed government politically and lessen the chances of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi returning to power after next month's elections.

Several districts of Baghdad have not received rice and sugar rations this month. The wheat flour ration has fallen from 9 kilos per family to 8.

The market price of rice has doubled to 1,000 dinars (70 cents) per kilogram and sugar has risen to 750 dinars from 600. A loaf of bread now costs 20 percent more at 60 dinars.

An international trader said political interference has marred operations at the trade ministry, which ran a fairly efficient rations distribution system under sanctions.

But Ahmed al-Mukhtar, the ministry's head of external affairs, said there was no crisis and that security was the reason behind what he described as a "delay" in the distribution of some components of the rations.

"The main issue is security. There is no problem as far as tenders and procurement," he said.

Iraq food procurement is still a closely guarded secret, despite efforts by Trade Minister Mohammad al-Jiboury to introduce transparency. Winning companies are not announced and there is suspicion that tenders are sometimes issued after suppliers have been chosen.

Iraq imports about 3 million tons of wheat a year and about 1 million tons of rice, making the country a player on the world market.

The rations include imported peas, lentils, cooking oil, soap, cheese, and tea.

Shipments come through Umm Qasr and ports in Jordan and Syria. Umm Qasr lacks equipment and the Iraqi port is congested despite US work to restore it.

Iraq has paid millions of dollars to Australia, its main wheat supplier after the United States, in charges for ships detained beyond the time allowed for unloading or sailing.

Insurgents operating in western and central Iraq have stopped trucks and detained drivers they suspected of delivering supplies for US forces or contractors working on American-funded projects.

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