Iraq Running Out of Benefits to Pay Widows, Poor People

BAGHDAD (AP) -- 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 $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 $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.

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.

"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 been stagnant for years due to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and subsequent reluctance by private investors to mine the vast petroleum fields.

The lawmakers appeared to be taking up an issue dear to their constituents -- and perhaps reverse public scorn for their own lavish paychecks.

Even though parliament has hardly met during the eight-month-old deadlock over forming a new government, the 325 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.