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Iraqis getting food rations

System returns for first time since war began

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — A massive food-rationing system that fended off starvation for Iraqis during more than a decade of U.N. sanctions resumed nationwide Sunday for the first time since the U.S.-led war began.

Once overseen by Saddam Hussein, the program is now run by the U.S.-backed occupying force.

About 45,000 distribution agents headed to U.S.-guarded food warehouses to collect their quotas, but many grumbled that rising transportation costs were eating into their small profits.

"It's not worth the trouble anymore," said Baghdad retailer Kawkab Mohammed Abbas.

The national distribution of the monthly rations — a food basket that includes flour, rice, sugar, lentils, milk powder, tea, salt and cooking fat — will begin today and continue until later this year.

It then may be replaced by a program for the "most vulnerable" or by other mechanisms to ensure food security, according to James T. Morris, head of the U.N. World Food Program.

The Rome-based WFP is in charge of purchasing, shipping and transporting the food to Iraq's Trade Ministry, which oversees the five-month, $1.85 billion program. A total of 2.5 million metric tons of food will be distributed under the program, of which 440,000 metric tons already are in the country, the WFP said.

Due to shortages, however, Iraqis will not receive milk powder or salt during June, and their ration of chickpeas will be cut, WFP spokeswoman Antonia Paradela said.

As many as 80 percent of Iraqis are known to depend entirely on the rations.

The food ration system operated sporadically during the past two months, but its nationwide resumption moves Baghdad a significant step closer to normalcy after the weeks of chaos and lawlessness that followed the capture of the city by U.S. forces on April 9.

Already, the partial restoration of water and electricity, the return to work by hundreds of thousands of people and the recent improvement in security have given Baghdad much of a business-as-usual feel.

The rationing system was launched in 1990 in response to sweeping U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq for invading Kuwait. During its early days, the government distributed amounts that barely staved off starvation.

The rations steadily increased beginning in late 1996, when Iraq was allowed to resume oil exports and use the revenues to buy food and medicine under U.N. supervision.

The U.N. Security Council lifted the sanctions on Iraq last month.

The United States often has criticized the "oil-for-food program" that funded the rationing system from 1996, arguing that it put money in Saddam's pocket. Other critics also said the ration system boosted Saddam's standing at home when his rule was vulnerable after the 1991 Gulf War and the twin revolts by Kurds and Muslim Shiites the same year.

At al-Rasafa food warehouse, a huge complex serving a third of Baghdad's 5 million residents, heavily armed U.S. soldiers guarded the gate to fend off looters as forklifts inside ferried food from trucks to storage areas.

Dozens of agents, meanwhile, squabbled with Trade Ministry officials about the hike in transport costs, which many said would leave them without a profit.

Abdel-Satar Khalaf, a store owner, said truckers wanted to charge him as much as $1.10 for every 110 pounds they ferried from the warehouse to his store, a 20-minute journey across Baghdad.

Truckers charged 25 cents for similar journeys before the war broke out March 20, Khalaf said, but an acute fuel shortage has led to long lines at petrol stations, forcing many to buy fuel on the black market at four or five times the official price.

"Unless they make it worthwhile for us, we shall be forced to charge ration-card holders more," said Abbas Abdel-Ghafar, another distribution agent.

Anticipating the war, Saddam's government this year distributed up to four months of rations in advance, with some families in Baghdad collecting the October ration during the early stages of the war, which began March 20. A person's ration costs 20 cents.

The advances meant many in Iraq had enough food to survive until early May without fresh rations or salaries. But because the rations do not provide a balanced diet, poor Iraqis often sell some rations to buy fruits, vegetables and meat.

Shawki Koroumi, a 37-year-old father of four from the poor neighborhood of Shawakah in central Baghdad, never had a ration card because he deserted the army in 1990. Asking for one would have exposed him and led to arrest and imprisonment.

"In my neighborhood, everyone is like family," he said. "Our neighbors always gave us what we needed. And when the neighborhood boys looted the government food stores last month, they divided everything."