March 22, 2020 / 9:58 AM / 7 days ago

Iraq ministry needs cash to build grain stockpile as coronavirus spreads

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s Trade Ministry is in need of more money from the budget to build three months’ supply in its strategic wheat and rice stockpiles in the face of the country’s growing coronavirus problems, it said late on Saturday.

Months of political deadlock have already delayed budget approvals for Iraq, a major Middle East grain importer.

“It is necessary to have enough financial allocations to provide a strategic stockpile for three months, especially given the law governing the ministry stresses its role in providing that stockpile in case of emergencies,” the ministry statement said.

“The lack of approval of a budget for the current year has affected the ministry’s plans to increase each person’s portion of subsidised goods.”

Iraq, which depends on oil revenue for 95 percent of its income, is expected to cut its spending rather than increase it as oil prices continue to suffer on the back of the collapse of the oil output pact between OPEC, of which Iraq is a member, and its allies.

Crude oil’s price crash comes as Iraq also contends with a political power vacuum since Adel Abdul Mahdi was ousted as prime minister after nationwide anti-corruption protests.

Iraq has so far recorded 229 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths. Case numbers are likely to be far higher than stated because testing facilities are limited in a country with a healthcare system that is already stretched.

The ministry did not reveal how low its stocks were but sources told Reuters on March 3 that stockpiles held enough rice for about two months.

Iraq had planned to purchase 750,000 tonnes of wheat from abroad in 2020.

The country needs between 4.5 million and 5 million tonnes of wheat a year to supply its food rationing programme. It mixes local grain with supplies from Australia, Canada and the United States.

Iraq’s grain board, which falls under the Trade Ministry, holds regular international tenders to import wheat and rice for the rationing programme. The programme covers rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar.

Reporting by Moayed Kenany; Writing by Maha El Dahan; Editing by David Goodman

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