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"Pay Day"

It was the end of the day on Thursday. Pay day.

That’s why you see the smiling faces. It’s COB and these ladies are heading home with a pocket full of Iraqi dinars.

No doubt they were also laughing at the American running alongside them with his Nikon. I saw them exit the wheat silo office ahead of me. The black abayas worn by Iraqi females caught my eye and though the abaya was not new to me, it was from a distance; never this close. The abaya was still a mystery, as was everything else in Iraq at the time, and I instinctively ran to catch them trying not to be too obtuse. They all saw me at about the same moment. I waved as I ran, trying to get out in front of them before they left the property. They had no idea what I was doing racing them to the exit or why I was so interested in taking their picture. Clearly this guy was daft but rather than feeling threatened, they sensed humor in the whole thing. Instant laughter.

Perhaps it was the innocence of our early days in Iraq before things went south. Perhaps I was a curious novelty to them, no perceived danger or animosity or dislike. Or perhaps it was because it was pay day. Whatever the reason, it was a good moment before good moments became few.

At the end of the day, we Americans had no idea what to expect in Iraq; at least the Americans I knew, military and civilian. It’s not that we didn’t try or study or practice. We did all that before we arrived. But our intelligence of the Iraqi theater and our knowledge of its people was sparse and unreliable. Just think WMD.

It was November 2002. I was part of a civilian humanitarian team assisting the Pentagon in planning a response to a predicted humanitarian crisis in Iraq should the United States Government decide to invade. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September of that year, President Bush clarified that his administration was doing everything to resolve the crisis and that war with Iraq was the last option. We were not planning to invade Iraq. Or that is what they told everyone. Of course, now we know that was a big fat fib because we were planning to invade Iraq. Double-time. My job in November 2002 was to design contingency plans should the Iraqi population suffer sudden food shortages during a war that we were not planning for. (They called it a “liberation” eventually, which I guess is an invasion by another name. Our part in the affair was to prepare for an eventual humanitarian crisis that would follow the “liberation,” which we were not planning for. Get it?)

The folks who had the most knowledge of Iraq’s food security at this time was the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP). As one on the UN’s premier agencies working in Iraq under the Saddam regime, WFP helped manage the Oil-for-Food program, a sanctioned scheme forcing Saddam to sell Iraqi oil to purchase food rations for the Iraqi people. By the end of 2002, most of Iraq’s 25 million citizens depended greatly on those food rations, distributed through a complex system entitled the Public Distribution System (PDS). It was about that time during our planning in Washington that we learned of this entire affair. It became clear to us that the “liberation” would undoubtedly disrupt the PDS food pipeline, resulting in food shortages that if not rapidly addressed, would lead to increased food insecurity, possible starvation and given enough time, famine.

In summary, we might say the sanctions designed to punish Saddam’s regime for invading Kuwait created a subsidized food dependent population that could starve due to food shortages resulting from the U.S led coalition’s liberation of Iraq.

War can be so crazy.

That explains why I was in a wheat silo facility south of Baghdad in Al-Hillah, Iraq in May 2003. We deployed as part of a civilian-led disaster response team from Amman on May 15, drove across the Syrian desert, parked ourselves with I (First) Marine Expeditionary Force in Al-Hillah, and began several months of assessments to determine, among other needs, if our liberation had created a food crisis. One of the assessments was at the wheat silos near Al-Hillah where I discovered happy abaya-clad Iraqi women heading home for the weekend.

At the end of the day, no food crisis. With funds from the United States and led by our reliable food security partner WFP, we maintained a food supply pipeline for ration deliveries throughout the initial conflict and long after, with wheat being the major food item. WFP purchased bulk wheat mainly from the U.S., Australia, and Russia, had it shipped on the open ocean to Aqaba, Jordan where it was discharged onto waiting 18-wheel trucks. The trucks delivered the bulk wheat to the silos scattered throughout Iraq where it was stored and then distributed by truck to flour mills where it was milled and sacked for delivery to special PDS wakil merchants who managed the distribution of the flour and other ration items to Iraqi families.

I am told the PDS operates in Iraq today, with WFP now supporting a digitized PDS as part of Iraq’s National Poverty Reduction Strategy through the Ministry of Trade. It is supposedly the only universal non-contributory social transfer system in the world and remains the largest social safety net for the Iraqi people despite three decades of conflict, corruption, social upheaval, and fragility.

I would not dare try to argue the economic viability of the PDS. That’s not the point. I just know that the PDS, along with fate, luck and all the unknowns that put me in the parking lot at a wheat silo in Al-Hillah one day and I will always appreciate the shared smiles, memories, and laughter of these ladies and the silly American taking their photo.

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