BAGHDAD – Iraq has run out of money to pay for widows' benefits, farm crops and other programs for the poor, the parliament leader 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 on Sunday 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 for at least five months.
The cause of the shortfall was unclear, 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 what caused 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 $11 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 been 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.
"They kept our millions in their pockets," said Mizher Abdul Majeed, 49, a farmer in the northern town of Mosul whose bank refuses to cash the Iraqi Trade Ministry-issued checks that pay for his wheat. "How can we prepare for the coming planting season?"
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 likely 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.
Meanwhile, gunmen stormed the home of an Iraqi TV reporter Sunday and shot him to death in front of his parents in the northern city of Mosul, police said. Mazin Mardan, 18, was the third employee of the Al-Mousiliyah satellite channel to be killed by insurgents this year.
A Mosul police commander described the shooting but refused to discuss possible motives. A city hospital official confirmed the slaying. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The U.S. military said a soldier was shot dead Sunday in northern Iraq. The statement did not provide details, pending notification of next of kin. But an Iraqi policeman in the northern city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, reported a U.S. soldier was hit by sniper fire at the Salahuddin provincial council headquarters.
It was the third combat-related death of an American service member since the U.S. formally ended all combat operations Aug. 31 and turned its focus to advising and assisting Iraqi soldiers.
Rebecca Santana, Hamid Ahmed, Mazin Yahya and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.