Baghdad: Iraq has run out of money to pay for widows` benefits, farm crops and other programs for the poor, the parliament leader on Sunday told lawmakers who have collected nearly USD 180,000 so far this year in one of the world`s most oil-rich nations.
In only their fourth session since being elected in March, members of Iraq`s parliament demanded to know what happened to the estimated USD 1 billion allocated for welfare funding by the Finance Ministry for 2010.
"We should ask the government where these allocations for widows` aid have gone," demanded Sadrist lawmaker Maha Adouri of Baghdad, one of the women who make up a quarter of the legislature`s 325 members. "There are thousands of widows who did not receive financial aid for months."
Another legislator said farmers have not been paid for wheat and other crops they supplied the government for at least five months.
The cause of the shortfall was clear, but officials have worried that the deadlock over forming a new government since March`s inconclusive election ultimately would lead to funding shortages. Whatever the cause, the welfare cutoff has been felt among Iraqis.
"We are sick people and others are old, and not getting our welfare puts us in a financial crisis," said Fatima Hassan, 54, a widow who lives with her four children in Baghdad`s Sadr City slum.
"How can we pay for our daily needs and for our medicine, or to cover the needs of my children? Where are the revenues of our right in our oil?" said Hassan, who stopped receiving government payments more than four months ago.
Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi promised that parliament would push the Iraqi government for answers on where the money went. But he said new funding for the nation`s social care programs will have to come out of the 2011 budget, which he said would be sent to parliament within days.
He said the Finance Ministry recently alerted parliament of the cash drain. A Finance Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media put the 2010 welfare budget total at about $1 billion. He would not say the cause of the shortfall.
"We will ask the government about this — if there is any carelessness or delaying these payments," said al-Nujaifi, a Sunni member of the Iraqiya political alliance.
Iraq sits on top of some of the world`s largest oil reserves, although production has failed to grow significantly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent reluctance by private investors to mine the vast petroleum fields. There are an estimated $143.1 billion barrels of oil reserves in Iraq, valued at over $1 trillion, based on the $81.51 per-barrel price as of Friday.
The lawmakers` eagerness to take up an issue dear to their constituents may have aimed in part to reverse public scorn for their own lavish paychecks.
Even though parliament has hardly met over the past eight months, lawmakers have continued to pull in salaries and allowances that reach $22,500 a month — as well a one-time $90,000 stipend and perks like free nights in Baghdad`s finest hotel.
The four-hour session was otherwise largely taken up by procedural issues since lawmakers still can`t take up the most politically meaty issue before them — approving a new government.
Factions have already started haggling over positions in backroom talks, even though President Jalal Talabani has not yet formally asked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to begin selecting ministry leaders — a step that government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said would like come in several days.
Once the official request comes from Talabani, al-Maliki has 30 days to assemble his cabinet. So the delay gives al-Maliki, a Shiite who nearly lost his job after his alliance fell short in the March vote, more time to decide how to divvy up the posts among his competing partners.
A power-sharing agreement designed by Iraq`s Kurdish leaders has assured that al-Maliki will remain prime minister even though a Sunni-backed but secular alliance known as Iraqiya won the most seats in the election.