BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After four months of total trade embargo, the government of President Saddam Hussein is encountering increasingly serious shortages in the government food-rationing program that has helped Iraq sustain its defiance of the United Nations demand that it end its occupation of Kuwait.
Since September, Iraqi families have suffered declines of 25 percent to 50 percent in the amount of basic food items they are able to get in government stores by redeeming the rationing coupons issued to each family, Iraqi residents and foreign diplomats monitoring the program say.
A food coupon that allotted 17.6 pounds of wheat flour for each person per month in September can be redeemed today for only 11 pounds of flour. The sugar ration of 3.3 pounds per person per month has been effectively cut to 1.15 pounds per month. Redemptions of tea coupons have slipped from about 4.5 ounces per person to about 1.8 ounces.
With government food supplies severely reduced, more and more Iraqi families are being forced into the open food market, where prices of basic food items are seven times higher than they were at the outset of the crisis but where shortages of rice, sugar and milk have become more apparent.
"Sanctions are working, no matter what anybody says," one Asian ambassador said in an interview, noting that basics like eggs and fresh milk have either disappeared or have been priced beyond the reach of most Iraqi families. "The country has had no income in the last five months, so there has got to be a limit to their endurance," he added.
The strongest indication of a looming food crisis was a government announcement 10 days ago that all excess supplies of sugar and flour on the open market were to be confiscated by Iraqi authorities administering the rationing program.
Last week, government agents swept through food stores in Baghdad, confiscating the scarce staple foods that were in private hands and for sale at wildly inflated free-market prices, according to a number of Iraqi witnesses.
Of basic food groups, meat has suffered the least price inflation, although prices have almost doubled. Foreign diplomats said meat prices had been moderated somewhat by an increase in the slaughter in Iraq's sheep herds last fall, but with the end of the slaughter season, prices are expected to move up more rapidly in coming weeks as supplies tighten.
One luxury hotel in downtown Baghdad is still serving T-bone steaks taken from Kuwait, but these supplies are dwindling rapidly.