Kurds fear starvation as aid is delayed

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Hundreds of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq face starvation because food aid, first promised by the United Nations earlier this year and now delayed, stopped Kurdish farmers planting crops for which they believed there would be no market.

Under the oil-for-food plan, agreed by the UN Security Council in May, 3 million people in Kurdistan were to receive full food rations. Peter Forster, the northern co-ordinator of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Iraq, says: "The farmers here realised there was no point in growing food, which they could not sell," because people would be getting food free.

Ironically UN resolution 986, aimed at feeding people in Iraq and Kurdistan who were impoverished by six years of UN sanctions, by allowing a limited sale of Iraqi oil, has reduced an estimated 660,000 Kurds and 1.5 million Iraqis to the brink of famine. Poor rainfall earlier this year had already cut the wheat crop, mainly grown in the plain below the Kurdish mountains, to 40 per cent below its normal level.

The oil-for-food-plan, worth $150m (pounds 100m) every three months to the Kurds, was suspended earlier this month after Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, helped the Kurdish Democratic Party capture Arbil, the Kurdish capital, and win the civil war with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The plan is not now expected to be implemented until after the US presidential election in November and possibly not until the end of the year.

Mr Forster says the WFP is launching an appeal to donors to try to make up the shortfall in food from October until the end of the year. He says the Kurds most at risk are the very poor. They include orphans - survivors of the Iraqi An Fal operation of 1988 in which 100,000 Kurds were killed - 100,000 refugees from Kirkuk expelled in 1991, and 50,000 people displaced by the recent fighting.

The whole of Kurdistan is deeply impoverished; many people have sold their furniture and everything else they owned since UN sanctions were introduced in 1990. Even a soldier is paid only about 1,000 Iraqi dinars (pounds 22) a month and this is often paid six months in arrears.

A bizarre consequence of the suspension of the oil-for-food plan is that it is making the Kurds more economically dependent on Baghdad. Iraq has started selling petrol for less than a penny a litre. In recent days there have been long queues outside the reopened petrol stations in Arbil to get the cheaper supplies.

The UN plan was to give each Kurd 9kg of wheat flour a month, 2kg of rice, 2 kg of sugar, as well as tea, oil, pulses, salt, milk powder for babies, soap and detergent. This was to have been paid for by the sale of Iraqi oil. Under the Memorandum of Understanding between the Security Council and Baghdad all purchases would be made abroad. Expecting that no Kurd would need to buy flour - the staple food in Kurdistan is bread - farmers decided it was not worth planting wheat. In a good year they produce 40,000 tons.

Again, if the UN plan does not go ahead, the only haven for Kurdish farmers may be Baghdad, which may want to build up its own buffer stocks of food and increase the reliance of the Kurds on central government. Even when the economic embargo was enforced, Iraq bought some grain in the north, mostly from territory controlled by the now triumphant KDP. The PUK had imposed a 60-per-cent levy on grain sales to the rest of Iraq in order to raise money.