Tue, Nov 23, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Iraq runs out of welfare funding

CUTOFF:Lawmakers demanded to know where the US$1 billion the finance ministry promised for widows’ aid and farm crops had gone, but no answer was forthcoming

AP, BAGHDAD

Iraq has run out of money to pay for widows’ benefits, farm crops and other programs for the poor, the parliament leader told lawmakers, who have collected nearly US$180,000 so far this year in one of the world’s most oil-rich nations.

In only their fourth session since being elected in March, members of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday demanded to know what happened to the estimated US$1 billion allocated for welfare funding by the finance ministry for this year.

“We should ask the government where these allocations for widows’ aid have gone,” said Sadrist MP Maha Adouri of Baghdad, one of the women who make up a quarter of the legislature’s 325 members. “There are thousands of widows who did not receive financial aid for months.”

Another legislator said farmers had not been paid for crops they had supplied to the government for at least five months.

The cause of the shortfall was unclear, but officials have worried that the deadlock over forming a new government since March’s inconclusive election ultimately would lead to funding shortages. Whatever the cause, the welfare cutoff has been felt among Iraqis.

“We are sick people and others are old, and not getting our welfare puts us in a financial crisis,” said Fatima Hassan, 54, a widow who lives with her four children in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.

“How can we pay for our daily needs and for our medicine, or to cover the needs of my children? Where are the revenues of our right in our oil?” said Hassan, who stopped receiving government payments more than four months ago.

Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi promised that parliament would push the Iraqi government for answers on where the money went, but he said new funding for the nation’s social care programs would have to come out of next year’s budget, which he said would be sent to parliament within days.

He said the finance ministry recently alerted parliament of the cash drain.

A ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media put this year’s welfare budget total at about US$1 billion. He would not say what caused the shortfall.

“We will ask the government about this — if there is any carelessness or delaying these payments,” said al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of the Iraqiya political alliance.

Iraq sits on top of some of the world’s largest oil reserves, although production has failed to grow significantly since the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent reluctance by private investors to mine the vast petroleum fields. There are an estimated 143.1 billion barrels of oil reserves in Iraq, valued at more than US$11 trillion, based on the US$81.51 per barrel price as of Friday.

The lawmakers’ eagerness to take up an issue dear to their constituents may have been aimed in part to reverse public scorn for their own lavish paychecks.

Even though parliament has hardly met over the past eight months, lawmakers have continued to pull in salaries and allowances that reach US$22,500 a month — as well a one-time US$90,000 stipend and perks like free nights in Baghdad’s finest hotel.

“They kept our millions in their pockets,” said Mizher Abdul Majeed, 49, a farmer in the northern town of Mosul whose bank refuses to cash the Iraqi trade ministry-issued checks that pay for his wheat. “How can we prepare for the coming planting season?”

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