|Up to eight million Iraqis still require immediate emergency aid, with nearly half this |
number living in "absolute poverty" according to Oxfam [GALLO/GETTY]
Iraq is set to halve essential items covered by rations and subsidies because of insufficient funds and spiralling inflation, in a further threat to an already deteriorating ration system.
The cuts, to be introduced at the beginning of 2008, have prompted criticism from those who have already warned of social unrest if measures are not taken to address rising poverty and unemployment.
Mohammed Hanoun, the Iraqi trade minister's chief of staff, told Al Jazeera that a request for $7.2bn to cover 10 basic items currently rationed and subsidised by the government had been rejected.
"In 2007, we asked for $3.2 billion for rationing basic foodstuffs. But since the prices of imported food stuff doubled in the past year, we requested $7.2 billion for this year. That request was denied."
The trade ministry is now set to slash the list of subsidised items by half to five basic food items, "namely, flour, sugar, rice, oil, and infant milk," Hanoun said.
Gulf War rationing
The ration system dates back to 1990, when the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iraq after its August 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The system allowed Iraqis to buy subsidised sugar, flour, rice, powdered milk, cooking oil, tea, beans, baby milk, soap and detergent.
|Almost 10 million Iraqis rely|
on the rationing system [EPA]
The ration cards also helped track population displacement due to the invasion, with people forced to re-register for new cards when they moved.
Though the ration system continued even after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003, there have been calls to eliminate or limit its scope.
Iraqi officials have resisted scrapping the programme altogether for fear of a public backlash.
Instead, they have opted for a gradual decrease in subsidised food items.
Abud Falah al-Sudani, Iraq's trade minister, warned that even a limited move to scrap the system would significantly increase hardships for the majority of Iraqis who depend heavily on the Saddam Hussein-era programme.
The impending move will affect nearly 10 million people who depend on the already fragile rationing system.
Sarmed Abdel-Rahman, 39, a father of three and an unemployed Baghdad resident, is one of those Iraqis.
The rationing system was implemented by the Saddam Hussein government in 1990 in response to the UN economic sanctions on Iraq.
In 1995, the World Health Organization said over 50 per cent hospitalised children under the age of five in Iraq were suffering from malnutrition.
The 1996 UN Oil for Food programme provided Iraq with increased food supplies for its rationing system.
The system benifited all residents, including expatriates during the period 1990-2003.
It was halted briefly after the March 2003 US-led invasion but resumed on June 1, 2003 with 45,000 distributors across the country.
In 2003, the trade ministry’s rationing bill stood at $1.85 billion.
He told Al Jazeera that his family depended heavily on the food ration system after he lost his job one year ago.
"Reducing the number of subsidised items will turn my sons into malnourished children and put us into a level of poverty much worse than we have seen," he said.
Ibraheem Abdullah, a professor and social affairs analyst at Baghdad University, said the government has inadequately measured the alarming rise in poverty since the March 2003 US-led invasion.
"Urgent measures should be taken to prevent the possible chaos that will lead to worsening conditions in the lives of millions of Iraqis when the food ration is reduced," he said.
"The government should give priority to this issue. Where do they expect unemployed families to find the means to purchase food now?"
Apart from the cut in subsidies, Baghdad also wants to reduce the number of people dependent on the rationing system by five million by June 2008.
Yet up to eight million Iraqis still require immediate emergency aid, with nearly half this number living in "absolute poverty", according to the latest report by Oxfam and a coalition of Iraqi groups, including the NGO Coordination Committee of Iraq.
Najet Muhammad, 27, a mother of two and a Baghdad resident, said baby milk was unavailable for three months because the distribution system had fallen into the hands of rival militias.
She said her already impoverished family was forced to divert money meant for house rent to buy milk at market prices.
"If they reduce the quantity of the ration we will be displaced as the money to pay bills will have to be used for food," Najet said.
"If we are considered a poor family today, tomorrow, we will be considered absolutely desperate."