News / Economy

Islamic State Militants Grab New Weapon - Iraqi Wheat

FILE - A field of unharvested wheat.
FILE - A field of unharvested wheat.

After seizing five oil fields and Iraq's biggest dam, Sunni militants bent on creating an Islamic empire in the Middle East now control yet another powerful economic weapon - wheat supplies.

Fighters from the Islamic State have overrun large areas in five of Iraq's most fertile provinces, where the United Nations food agency says around 40 percent of its wheat is grown.

Now they're helping themselves to grain stored in government silos, milling it and distributing the flour on the local market, an Iraqi official told Reuters. The Islamic State has even tried to sell smuggled wheat back to the government to finance a war effort marked by extreme violence and brutality.

International officials are drawing uneasy comparisons with the days of hardship under dictator Saddam Hussein, when Western sanctions led to serious shortages in the 1990s.

“Now is the worst time for food insecurity since the sanctions and things are getting worse,” said Fadel El-Zubi, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative for Iraq.

While Iraq faces no immediate food shortages, the longer term outlook is deeply uncertain.

Hassan Nusayif al-Tamimi, head of an independent nationwide union of farmers' cooperatives, said the militants were intimidating any producers who tried to resist.

“They are destroying crops and produce, and this is creating friction with the farmers. They are placing farmers under a lot of pressure so that they can take their grain,” he said, adding that farmers had reported fighters were also wrecking wells.

Many farmers have joined the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled the Arab and foreign fighters' advance. Those who remain have yet to be paid for the last crop, meaning they have no money to buy seed, fuel and fertilizers to plant the next.

Where Iraq's wheat is under threat (Click to enlarge)Where Iraq's wheat is under threat (Click to enlarge)
Where Iraq's wheat is under threat (Click to enlarge)
Where Iraq's wheat is under threat (Click to enlarge)

The statistics following the jihadists' lightning advance across northern Iraq in June are grim both for the government in Baghdad and a population that needs reliable food supplies.

Iraq's trade ministry says 1.1 million tons of wheat it bought from farmers this harvest season is in silos in the five provinces. This represents nearly 20 percent of annual Iraqi consumption which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts at around 6.5 million tons, roughly half of which is imported.

Amidst the chaos of northern Iraq, it remains unclear exactly how much wheat has fallen into rebel hands, as the government still controls parts of the provinces.

However, a source at the Agriculture Ministry confirmed the size of the problem. About 30 percent of Iraq's entire farm production, including the wheat crop, is at risk, the source said, requesting anonymity.

Jihadi Business Dealings

The Islamic State already has extensive business dealings. It is selling crude oil and gasoline both in Iraq and Syria, where it is fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces to create a cross-border caliphate.

So far, it has largely used energy and food resources under its control as a fund raiser rather than an instrument of siege, selling instead of withholding them.

A senior Iraqi government official told Reuters that the militants had seized wheat in recent weeks from government silos in the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, which both border Syria.

These included 40,000-50,000 tons taken in Tal Afar and another Nineveh town, Sinjar, where tens of thousands of local people from the Yazidi religious minority have fled the militant onslaught to a nearby mountain range.

Hassan Ibrahim, director general of the Grain Board of Iraq, said the Islamic State had tried to sell wheat stolen from Nineveh back to the government via middle men in other provinces.

“For this reason I stopped purchasing wheat from farmers last Thursday,” said Ibrahim, whose Trade Ministry body is responsible for procuring wheat internationally and from local producers.

Bread prices are stable in Baghdad due to imports and crops in areas still under government control. In Baghdad and nine other southern provinces, the Trade Ministry has bought nearly 1.4 million tons from farmers this season.

It is not clear whether the government's import needs will rise dramatically, given that it will probably not try to supply areas no longer under its control.

Unpaid Farmers

Iraq's wheat harvest began in May, the month before the  Islamists and their allies launched their assault, taking the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in days when resistance from thousands of U.S.-trained government soldiers collapsed.

The harvest begins in the south and moves north, meaning that farmers began delivering wheat to government silos in rural areas around Mosul in early June, less than two weeks before militants stormed the city.

Zubi said the government usually pays the producers two months in arrears. Therefore an estimated 400,000 farmers are living under the militants with no hope of being paid for the wheat they delivered before the offensive. “No farmer received his money,” he said, meaning they will not be able to start planting in the seeding season that begins as soon as next month in some areas. “This is their sole income.”

The FAO is urgently working to get 3,000 tons of wheat seed to the farmers for planting, he said, though this effort faces major problems due to the security situation. Seed deliveries are vital for ensuring that fellow U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program, which are already helping hundreds of thousands, are not saddled with feeding yet more Iraqis.

John Schnittker, a former USDA economist who advised the Trade Ministry for three years before USDA pulled its staff out of Baghdad in 2012, said a number of factors would “severely test” the ability of farmers in northern Iraq to grow their wheat crops to be harvested next year.

These included threats to irrigation water due to the militants' control of the Mosul dam, the government's inability to get fertilizer and fuel to farmers in areas under the Islamic State, and the fact that many producers fled their homes.

He expected a “lower planted area and lower yields” for the 2014-2015 harvest. “It's very likely to be disrupted because of the conflict.”

Meanwhile, the “public distribution system” - the government's means of supplying subsidized flour and other goods such as vegetable oil, sugar and rice - has broken down in militant-held areas.

Although the system is corrupt and wasteful, impoverished Iraqis depend on it. Schnittker said its breakdown poses a “huge hardship” to northern Iraq's rural population and would  eventually push more people into refugee status.  

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs

World Currencies


Rates may not be current.