food in Iraq...
Posted 03 February 2003 - 07:22 PM
Stockpiling Popularity With Food
Rations Quell Iraqi Discontent
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 3, 2003; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 2 -- Once a month, Esther Yawo strolls to a neighborhood market to pick up groceries for her family of five. She usually returns with 180 pounds of flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil, white beans, chickpeas and tea, plus 16 bars of soap.
Total price: 60 cents.
In a colossal exercise in public welfare and social control, President Saddam Hussein's government distributes the same monthly provisions at the same low price across Iraq, a country of 26 million people. The handouts have kept food on the table for the Yawos and most other Iraqi families, who can no longer afford to purchase wheat, rice and other staples at market prices because of debilitating U.N. economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The ration program is regarded by the United Nations as the largest and most efficient food-distribution system of its kind in the world. It has also become what is perhaps Hussein's most strategic tool to maintain popular support over the last decade.
The United States and other Western nations had hoped the sanctions, which devastated Iraq's once-prosperous economy, would lead Iraqis to rebel against their leader or, at the least, compel him to fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors hunting for weapons of mass destruction. But Hussein has held firm in large part by using food to stem discontent with the pain of sanctions, employing a massive network of trucks, computers, warehouses and neighborhood distributors to provide basic sustenance for every Iraqi.
In some ways, the food program reflects the philosophy of Hussein's Baath Party government, which promotes modern, technocratic Arab nationalism and had invested heavily in education and infrastructure before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But as Iraq prepares for the possibility of another war with the United States, the ration program also has emerged as a key component of Hussein's homeland defense strategy. In a bid to build public confidence in his leadership and stanch panic that could be capitalized on by opposition groups, the government has been doling out double rations since October so families can stockpile supplies. In January, for instance, Yawo received her allotments for April and May, which were delivered to her house on a wooden pushcart.
"It makes us feel safer," she said, groaning as she heaved a sack of rice into her pantry. "Now we know we will at least have food to eat if the Americans bomb us again."
Before the Kuwait invasion, Esther Yawo and her husband, Zaia, had never heard of a ration. "We had enough money," he said with a nostalgic smile. "We could buy whatever we wanted from the market."
As a high school English teacher, he made 42 dinars a month -- about $140. In Baghdad, where food, fuel and electricity were subsidized, it was enough to live in comfort. The couple, members of a small Christian minority, rented a spacious, two-story house in a middle-class neighborhood. They traveled around the country during school holidays. They ate meat every day.
"We used to buy it in large boxes and store it in the freezer," Esther said. "It was always there." Zaia added, "Every Iraqi family lived that way. Everyone could afford meat and eggs and bread and whatever else they wanted."
The cheap fare was the result of Iraq's affluence. Flush from oil sales, the government imported more than $20 billion of food a year. Everything from Argentine beef to Indian tea, which arrived by the shipload, was offered to merchants at cut-rate prices.
Even then, Hussein was using food to build support. During the latter part of Iraq's 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran, a conflict that claimed more than 250,000 Iraqi lives, the government flooded the market with subsidized luxury imports, including Scotch whiskeys and French cheeses. There were no cards specifying how much Camembert or single-malt somebody could buy.
"You could get as much as you wanted," Zaia said.
But all that ended after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. By Aug. 6, the U.N. Security Council had slapped a trade embargo on Iraq.
Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh said he was summoned by Hussein four days later and ordered to develop a system to ration the country's remaining food stockpile. "His excellency was very worried," Saleh said in an interview. "He did not want the people of Iraq to go hungry."
Saleh said he and his staff began to consider the options. They could set up distribution centers in government buildings, but he feared it would lead to long lines. They could give large quantities of food to private merchants with orders to give it away, but that would have resulted in chaos.
They settled on a system where the government would print ration books and place large quantities of food at several warehouses around the country. Fifty thousand merchants were signed up to be "retailers," requiring them to pick up sacks of food from the warehouses and dole out portions to people in their neighborhoods in exchange for a nominal payment from the recipient.
The system was operational in weeks and it continued during the Gulf War, making Saleh something of a national hero. "Twelve of our drivers were martyred in the bombing," he said, using the common word for those who die in war. "But we refused to let the Americans stop us."
In the years after the war, before Iraq accepted a U.N. deal to sell its oil to buy food, the rations were fairly meager. The government distributed locally grown wheat and beans as well as whatever other products it was able to import from Jordan and Syria in exchange for undeclared oil exports. The 1,275 daily calorie content of the rations was about half of what nutritionists recommended, enough to keep people from starving but not enough to prevent malnutrition, particularly among children.
"It just barely kept us from starving," Zaia Yawo said.
In 1996, Hussein's government reached a deal with the United Nations whereby Iraq would openly sell some oil on the world market and use the proceeds to purchase food and medicine. In 1998, the U.N. Security Council decided to expand the program by allowing Iraq to sell as much oil as it wanted to fund humanitarian goods.
Iraq now spends about $3.6 billion a year to buy food under the oil-for-food program, which amounts to about $11 per person per month. Although the shipments are just a fraction of the value of the country's pre-war food imports, they now are enough for Iraq to provide a daily ration that is close to U.N. nutritional guidelines.
Many Iraqis credit Hussein with keeping them fed under the sanctions, which have been cast by his government as an American plot to harm the Iraqi people.
The U.S. government "hoped the sanctions would lead to hunger, which would lead to disruption and anger, so the political system could be changed," said Trade Minister Saleh. "But we proved the failure of this theory."
Some here quietly express a dissenting view. "Why should we thank him?" a retired teacher said. "If he didn't invade Kuwait, there would be no sanctions and no need for the rations."
Opulence to Indigence
With its hulking cranes, cavernous warehouses and rows of brightly colored shipping containers, the Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf used to be a symbol of Iraq's oil-slicked opulence. Now it is a glaring example of this country's indigence.
Before the sanctions, deep-draft freighters from all over the world would unload German cars, Japanese electronics and U.S. steel. Plenty of food arrived too. "We would receive boxes and boxes of cheese from Denmark," said Ali Abdullah, a port supervisor. "And there were ships full of frozen chickens from South America."
Today, ships of the world still call at Umm Qasr, but to drop off large sacks of dry commodities. Since the port is under U.N. observation, the vessels must leave empty because the sanctions prevent Iraq from exporting anything other than oil, which is loaded onto tankers at another gulf terminal.
Even if the goods are not as posh as before, they are handled with urgency and efficiency. As soon as the giant gray cranes pluck out enough sacks to fill an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, the driver rumbles away, armed with a computer printout indicating the warehouse where he must drop off the cargo.
"I have a very important job to do," proclaimed Settar Hamzah, one of the drivers milling about the port on a recent morning as he waited for his turquoise Mercedes-Benz truck to be loaded with 50 tons of Brazilian sugar. "I'm helping to feed the people."
An hour later, he was off, headed to a distribution center near Baghdad. When he arrived 12 hours later, although it was pushing midnight, a dozen scruffy laborers were waiting for him, ready to spend the next several hours unloading the sugar by hand and hauling it inside the warehouse.
The sugar would be carted off in pickup trucks hired by neighborhood distributors around Baghdad, who would tear open the burlap sacks and parcel out the contents to people such as Esther Yawo.
Posted 03 February 2003 - 07:29 PM
That bastard Saddam.
Posted 03 February 2003 - 07:31 PM
Ohhh, the humanity.
Posted 03 February 2003 - 08:02 PM
Of course if you were Kurdish or Shiite (ie. anti Baathist) then it`s a different story.
Posted 03 February 2003 - 09:09 PM
What cannot go on, will not go on.
Im waiting for the obligatory villification of Muslims
from the peanut gallery here. You know who they are.
In order to begin the neo-con necrophiliac war, Iraqis
need to be continually villified until you don't feel
guilty about killing a bunch of them.
Articles like this one don't help boogiedog much.
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