In a grim report underscoring troubles in Iraq, the Rome-based UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday that support from the state-run Public Distribution System was grossly insufficient to prevent chronic malnourishment.

"The political environment before the war made it impossible to analyse the level of poverty and hunger in the country," said Torben Due, the director of the WFP's programme in Iraq.

"For the first time, we are getting an accurate picture of people's access to food," he said in a statement.

Sanctions and war

Squarely blaming the situation on years of international sanctions and war, the WFP said about 6.5 million Iraqis, or about 25% of the population, were "highly dependent on food rations and therefore vulnerable".

Of those 6.5 million, 2.6 million resell part of their rations to buy other items, including medicine.

The survey on food security, which took place last year and covered 28,500 households in Iraq, showed that 27% of all children up to the age of five are chronically malnourished. 

"Despite receiving food rations from Iraq's public distribution system, these people are still struggling to cope," Due said.

"Once [Iraq] stabilises politically and economically it can take care of this portion of the population. But until that happens, external assistance will be required," he added.

Emergency operation

The WFP receives most of its funding from the United States. 

Poverty is rife in post-war Iraq

The group said it had launched a one-year emergency operation that will cost $60 million and reach 220,000 malnourished children and 350,000 pregnant and lactating women.

The report comes at a time of increased scrutiny into the former UN oil-for-food programme - the $67 billion humanitarian aid plan that operated from 1996 and was shut down last year. It allowed Iraq to sell oil to buy civilian goods to ease the impact of 1991 Gulf war sanctions on ordinary Iraqis.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein last year, documents surfaced that appeared to show the programme had been rife with bribery and kickbacks, prompting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to order an investigation.