BAGHDAD/ABU DHABI: 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 ISIS 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. ISIS 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 al-Zubi, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization representative for Iraq.
While Iraq faces no immediate food shortages, the longer term outlook is deeply uncertain.
Hasan 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.
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 puts at around 6.5 million tons, roughly half of which is imported.
Amid the chaos of northern Iraq, it remains unclear just how much wheat has fallen into ISIS hands, as Baghdad 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.
ISIS already has extensive business dealings. It is selling crude oil and gasoline both in Iraq and Syria, where it is fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces to create a cross-border caliphate.
So far, it has largely used energy and food resources under its control to raise funds 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.
Hassan Ibrahim, Director General of the Grain Board of Iraq, said ISIS 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 state control.
In Baghdad and nine other southern provinces, the Trade Ministry has bought nearly 1.4 million tons from farmers this season.