The UN World Food Program says its food-assistance program in Iraq is the largest emergency food delivery to any country in history. Last month saw an average of one truck entering Iraq every minute, bringing staples ranging from rice to baby formula to soap. RFE/RL spoke with one of the program's officials in Baghdad to learn more about the effort.
Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With an economy flat on its back from war and more than 10 years of sanctions, Iraq's need for emergency food aid dwarfs anything international agencies have seen before.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) calculates that between April -- just after U.S. and British forces toppled Saddam Hussein -- and early this month, it delivered a total of 1.2 million tons of food and other staple goods to Iraq. The deliveries mostly consist of rice, pulses, vegetable oil, salt, tea, sugar, and baby formula, as well as soap and detergents.
The Rome-based agency says that, on average, that means one truck of emergency food aid entered Iraq every minute during June, or about 1,000 tons of food per hour. The supplies are brought in by local truck companies from UN-stocked warehouses in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Iran, while additional supplies enter through Iraq's Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr.
WFP Deputy Executive Director Jean-Jacques Graisse told reporters in Rome last week that "as far as we are aware, this is the biggest food-aid operation ever." He noted that by October of this year, the amount of food his agency will have transported into Iraq will be equivalent to all the food it delivered to crisis areas around the world last year.
Antonia Paradela, WFP spokesperson in Baghdad, said it is no exaggeration to call the Iraq operation the biggest emergency food-delivery operation in history. She said that 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million people are entirely dependent on food rations, while the rest are partly dependent upon them. That is far more than the number of people involved in emergency food operations in the past.
"Never in history has it been attempted to feed a whole country's population with such a large number of people. Even in the  Berlin crisis, when food was [airlifted] in there, it was for 3 million people, it was never like 27 million. In other operations there have been, for example, in Afghanistan 9 million, in Ethiopia about 12 million," Paradela told RFE/RL.
The WFP's Iraq operation is estimated to cost $1.7 billion just to the end of October, that is, through this fiscal year. It is mostly being funded by remaining monies from the former UN oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to use its oil revenues to buy food and other humanitarian goods as an exception to sanctions.
The sanctions -- which were imposed in 1990 and tied to Iraq's proving it had no weapons of mass destruction -- were lifted by a UN resolution in May. The resolution recognized the U.S. and Britain as Iraq's occupying powers and turned control of Iraq's oil revenues over to them to use for Iraq's reconstruction.
Paradela said that despite earlier uncertainties over what role UN humanitarian agencies would play in postwar Iraq, the U.S. and British authorities now have put full responsibility for feeding Iraq on the WFP and related UN-system agencies.
She said the greatest challenge has been to create an orderly distribution system which would avoid the debacles of attempts to deliver emergency food aid into Iraq during and immediately after the war. The first delivery attempts saw mobs in southern Iraqi towns loot aid trucks as soon as they stopped at distribution points, with most of the food boxes being grabbed by gangs of young men for later sale on the market.
To ensure a fair distribution, the WFP has now revived a network of some 44,000 local agents that was set up under Saddam Hussein after the start of the oil-for-food program in 1996 to pass out food rations. Under Hussein, the agents were the final neighborhood outlets of a well-organized government system which regularly imported much the same quantities of food that the humanitarian agencies are trying to deliver under emergency conditions today.
Paradela said that despite the breakdown of law and order after the war -- and the slow reformation of local police forces under the U.S. and British authorities -- the WFP has found the local agents to be honest partners in ensuring the food aid reaches ration-card holders. The ration cards, too, are remnants of the Hussein-era oil-for-food program.
"These [agents] are shopkeepers," Paradela said. "They tend to have a little shop in a neighborhood or a village and they were the people that got these contracts from the [Hussein] government to, in a way, assist them with the distribution of the food rations. Overall, they are honest people, they work with their community, they know everybody, they know who cannot pay, and from this point of view, [Iraq] is such a cohesive society."
However, the WFP official said that as prices for all goods in Iraq have risen due to the crisis of war and its aftermath, the local agents have asked permission to charge ration-card holders a slightly higher price than the nominal fees they paid under the Ba'ath Party regime.
"People used to pay a nominal fee, like 20 cents of a dollar, for the food ration whose market value is about $8. And what [the agents] have been asking in some cases, because they have been charged more money from the transporters to bring the food in, I mean fuel prices have gone up, prices overall have gone up everywhere, so they have been asking the families to just give a bit more, instead of maybe 20 cents on the dollar, maybe 30 or 40," Paradela said.
Beyond reviving a nationwide distribution system and trying to ensure the price of food rations remains low, the WFP's other major challenge is security. The WFP announced today that mounting lawlessness is affecting its ability to deliver food and, particularly, to safely stockpile supplies in warehouses within Iraq itself.
The agency said in a press statement that "it is alarmed by the rise in security incidents affecting its food aid operation in Iraq over the past month. The agency has registered an increase in shootings, looting of storage facilities and attacks on trucks bringing food into southern Iraq."
The WFP said that, as one example, it had to pull its staff out of its Al-Hurriyah warehouse in Baghdad last month after hundreds of looters ransacked the facility. The incident froze food distribution in the capital for more than a week.
Paradela said that the warehouses are secured by guards from the Ministry of Trade but the guards sometimes are uncertain about their powers to shoot or otherwise stop looters. She said that when U.S. or British troops are present in the vicinity, the guards are more confident, but when they are not, the guards feel less assertive.
"These guards, when the [coalition] troops withdraw, if someone tries to break in, they feel a bit, well, not very assertive. They are worried. In some cases in the north, these guards have not received their salaries, and that is a responsibility of the CPA [the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority]," Paradela said.
She continued: "We are noticing that the guards are not in the best position to defend [facilities] and when we alert the CPA or the [coalition] troops about [security problems] they go, come back, are there for a few days, and then they leave. I mean they are also a bit [busy], there are many security incidents, they are busy with so many things."
U.S. and British forces regularly patrol in the country as part of their security operations but increasingly have found they must deal with direct attacks against them by Ba'athist loyalists and other anticoalition agents. General Tommy Franks, who this month stepped down as head of the U.S. Central Command, said yesterday that "on a given day there will be somewhere between 10 and 25 violent incidents" in Iraq, where almost 150,000 U.S. troops are stationed. He also estimated U.S. troops would have to remain in Iraq up to four years.
U.S. President George W. Bush said today that "there is no question we have a security issue in Iraq." But Bush said the United States is making "steady progress" in establishing security and that "we will stay the course."