UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Food supplies affected by security checks at Syrian border
BAGHDAD, 7 March 2005 (IRIN) - Food supplies in Iraq are being disrupted as hundreds of trucks carrying fresh and canned food have been unable to cross the Iraqi-Syrian border for more than two weeks, after the interim government imposed tighter controls to prevent insurgency, officials said.
The Iraqi government has practically closed the border for security reasons, alleging that Syrian officials were not stopping insurgents from entering the country, which they say worsened after the killing of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri on 14 February. Damascus agreed on Monday to withdraw Syrian troops from the country.
Lines of trucks stretching kilometres can be seen at the Syrian border. Fresh food has started to go off inside the trunks and drivers say they and the companies they are working for are facing huge losses. Some returned back to Damascus, the Syrian capital after the food they were carried had spoiled.
Sophisticated truck-scanning equipment has not been working for more than two weeks, which has compounded the delays. US troops are using dogs to keep drivers inside the trucks, afraid that their movement in the border area could affect local security.
"It's really an abuse against us. We are just doing our job. I have finished the personal supplies that I had taken with me and don't have any more food for myself and there are no place to buy any more," Saluan Ahmed, a driver from the central Ramadi city, who has been stuck at the border for more than two weeks, told IRIN.
The slowdown is also affecting food security in the country. According to a recent World Food Programme (WFP) report, the border closure has delayed the import of some food commodities into Iraq and there are significant countrywide shortfalls in ghee (purified butter), sugar and milk. Some governorates reported a serious lack of nearly every Public Distribution System (PDS) service, the annual monthly food ration that most Iraqis receive.
Yunnis Bashir, a spokesman for the Ministry of Trade (MoT), responsible for the ration distribution, told IRIN that the bottlenecks at the border have caused a delay in distribution this month and that if the situation continues it will worsen availability of food supplies.
"We understand that the government wants to secure borders, but I believe that food is another issue here and if they are maintaining good security at the borders, they can prevent the insurgents from entering and let food come in to the country," Bashir said.
Some 6.5 million people, 25 percent of the entire population, remain highly dependent on food rations and are therefore vulnerable, according to the WFP's baseline food security assessment, the first of its kind in Iraq and released in May 2004.
Just under half of that figure are so poor that they have to resell part of their food rations to buy basic necessities such as medicine and clothes. A further 3.6 million Iraqis, 14 percent of the population, would become food insecure if the rationing system were discontinued.
But Ministry of Interior officials told IRIN that the situation at the border was critical and that the only option was to virtually close the crossing.
"We had to do that for our own security. We believe that Syrian officers at the border are not paying important attention to whom is crossing from their country into ours, so for this reason we had to be more drastic in the closure of the border," Sabah Kadham, deputy minister of interior, told IRIN.
Border inspection is much more rigorous now. Syrian men aged between 15 and 50 years old cannot enter Iraq and those who do not fit into those age limits must be accompanied by a close Iraqi female relative.
Maj. Ahmed Youssef, responsible for border inspection, told IRIN that this decision has prevented the entrance of terrorists, as well as trucks carrying weapons hidden in food supplies.
"We have found many drivers from Syria and even Iraqis who were carrying weapons in their trucks. Action has been taken against those people. If Syrian, they have been sent back to their country and if they are Iraqis they are taken for questioning in the capital," Youssef added.
A Syrian officer at the border told IRIN that if someone infiltrates Iraq it doesn't mean that the Syrian government wants insurgents to enter Iraq, but that sometimes they cannot prevent someone from getting across.
According to Omar Ebin Lattif, a senior officer at the naturalisation department of the Ministry of Interior, hundreds of non-Iraqi Arabic people have been taken back to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iran since they didn't have authorisation to live in the country and were suspected of being part of the resistance.
But Iraqis believe that the security measures taken at the border are causing havoc in daily life. "At the same time that they close the borders they are also decreasing our good relations with Syria. People here are dying, in need of food and food is being lost at the border, it's not right," Labiba Hussein, a mother of two from Fallujah, told IRIN.
Theme(s): (IRIN) Other
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