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Iraq to Curb Food Rations, Spurring Fear of Hunger



Food is distributed to families in Baghdad.

February 26, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government plans to cut back its food-ration system this summer, a move aid agencies warn could increase rates of malnutrition.

The system, established by Saddam Hussein during United Nations sanctions imposed during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, has been lauded by the world body as an effective tool to prevent hunger in the country.

Under the system, items such as soap, baby formula, flour, sugar, tea and rice were distributed to citizens on a monthly basis. But since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the system has been strained. Corruption and security concerns have prevented the delivery of rationed items across the country.

Rising global food prices -- a growing worry for countries like Iraq that are heavily dependent on imported food -- are also driving the decision to end the rationing. Other countries, notably Egypt, a big wheat importer, have faced the increasing cost of their food-subsidies programs.

Iraq -- facing war-related humanitarian strains like large-scale displacement of residents -- is particularly vulnerable to higher prices. The rationing program cost more than $3 billion in 2007. Because of Iraq's double-digit inflation and higher international food prices, the cost is expected to reach more than $7 billion this year.

Amid the higher prices, the Iraqi government says it wants to move away from expensive subsidies and adopt market mechanisms. That goal has been lauded by the World Bank and others.

The government has been curbing the program for months. Starting this year, only flour, sugar, rice, oil, and infant milk were part of the rations package.

In June, the government plans to end the rationing program altogether for many of Iraq's citizens. Under the current program, every family received rations, regardless of their means. After the summer, only the needy will be eligible for the program. The government estimates five million of Iraq's 28 million people would be ineligible for the rations under the new system.

Aid agencies say the reduction in rations will further hurt Iraqis, many of whom are already facing a humanitarian crisis. The U.N. says one in four children in Iraq under the age of 5 is chronically malnourished, and at least four million Iraqis are in need of food assistance. This month, the U.N. appealed for emergency aid of $265 million to provide food, water and other kinds of assistance to Iraqis this year.

"Depriving Iraqis of the only lifeline they have left will make them more vulnerable and is likely to generate more insecurity inside Iraq," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International.

Write to Gina Chon at gina.chon@wsj.com

:: Article nr. 41486 sent on 26-feb-2008 18:51 ECT


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