News / Economy

Islamic State Militants Grab New Weapon - Iraqi Wheat

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

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)
x
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

Kurdish President: More Needed to Defeat Islamic State

In interview with VOA's Persian Service, Massoud Barzani says peshmerga forces have not received weapons, logistical support needed to successfully fight IS in northern Iraq More

Sierra Leone's Stray Dog Population Doubles During Ebola Crisis

Many dog owners fear their pets could infect them with the virus and have abandoned them, leading to the increase and sparking fears of rabies More

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

New methods for mapping pain in the brain not only validate sufferers of chronic pain but might someday also lead to better treatment More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Paini
X
Shelley Schlender
April 20, 2015 7:03 PM
Pain has a purpose - it can stop you from touching a flame or from walking on a broken leg. As an injury heals, the pain goes away. Usually. But worldwide, one out of every five people suffers from pain that lasts for months and years, leading to lost jobs, depression, and rising despair when medical interventions fail or health experts hint that a pain sufferer is making it up. From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Italy Rescues Migrants After Separate Deadly Capsize Incident

Italy continued its massive search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Monday for the capsized boat off the coast of Libya that was carrying hundreds of migrants, while at the same time rescuing Syrian migrants from another vessel off the coast of Sicily. Thirteen children were among the 98 Syrian migrants whose boat originated from Turkey on the perilous journey to Europe.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs

World Currencies

EUR
USD
0.9247
JPY
USD
118.78
GBP
USD
0.6657
CAD
USD
1.2190
INR
USD
62.395

Rates may not be current.