Once a month, Esther Yawo strolls to a neighborhood market to pick up groceries for her family of five. She usually returns with 180 pounds of flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil, white beans, chickpeas and tea, plus 16 bars of soap.

Total price: 60 cents.

In a colossal exercise in public welfare and social control, President Saddam Hussein's government distributes the same monthly provisions at the same low price across Iraq, a country of 26 million people. The handouts have kept food on the table for the Yawos and most other Iraqi families, who can no longer afford to purchase wheat, rice and other staples at market prices because of debilitating U.N. economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The ration program is regarded by the United Nations as the largest and most efficient food-distribution system of its kind in the world. It has also become what is perhaps Hussein's most strategic tool to maintain popular support over the last decade.

The United States and other Western nations had hoped the sanctions, which devastated Iraq's once-prosperous economy, would lead Iraqis to rebel against their leader or, at the least, compel him to fully cooperate with U.N. inspectors hunting for weapons of mass destruction. But Hussein has held firm in large part by using food to stem discontent with the pain of sanctions, employing a massive network of trucks, computers, warehouses and neighborhood distributors to provide basic sustenance for every Iraqi.

In some ways, the food program reflects the philosophy of Hussein's Baath Party government, which promotes modern, technocratic Arab nationalism and had invested heavily in education and infrastructure before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But as Iraq prepares for the possibility of another war with the United States, the ration program also has emerged as a key component of Hussein's homeland defense strategy. In a bid to build public confidence in his leadership and stanch panic that could be capitalized on by opposition groups, the government has been doling out double rations since October so families can stockpile supplies. In January, for instance, Yawo received her allotments for April and May, which were delivered to her house on a wooden pushcart.

"It makes us feel safer," she said, groaning as she heaved a sack of rice into her pantry. "Now we know we will at least have food to eat if the Americans bomb us again."

Before the Kuwait invasion, Esther Yawo and her husband, Zaia, had never heard of a ration. "We had enough money," he said with a nostalgic smile. "We could buy whatever we wanted from the market."

As a high school English teacher, he made 42 dinars a month -- about $140. In Baghdad, where food, fuel and electricity were subsidized, it was enough to live in comfort. The couple, members of a small Christian minority, rented a spacious, two-story house in a middle-class neighborhood. They traveled around the country during school holidays. They ate meat every day.

"We used to buy it in large boxes and store it in the freezer," Esther said. "It was always there." Zaia added, "Every Iraqi family lived that way. Everyone could afford meat and eggs and bread and whatever else they wanted."

The cheap fare was the result of Iraq's affluence. Flush from oil sales, the government imported more than $20 billion of food a year. Everything from Argentine beef to Indian tea, which arrived by the shipload, was offered to merchants at cut-rate prices.

Even then, Hussein was using food to build support. During the latter part of Iraq's 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran, a conflict that claimed more than 250,000 Iraqi lives, the government flooded the market with subsidized luxury imports, including Scotch whiskeys and French cheeses. There were no cards specifying how much Camembert or single-malt somebody could buy.

"You could get as much as you wanted," Zaia said.

But all that ended after Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. By Aug. 6, the U.N. Security Council had slapped a trade embargo on Iraq.

Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh said he was summoned by Hussein four days later and ordered to develop a system to ration the country's remaining food stockpile. "His excellency was very worried," Saleh said in an interview. "He did not want the people of Iraq to go hungry."

Saleh said he and his staff began to consider the options. They could set up distribution centers in government buildings, but he feared it would lead to long lines. They could give large quantities of food to private merchants with orders to give it away, but that would have resulted in chaos.

They settled on a system where the government would print ration books and place large quantities of food at several warehouses around the country. Fifty thousand merchants were signed up to be "retailers," requiring them to pick up sacks of food from the warehouses and dole out portions to people in their neighborhoods in exchange for a nominal payment from the recipient.

The system was operational in weeks and it continued during the Gulf War, making Saleh something of a national hero. "Twelve of our drivers were martyred in the bombing," he said, using the common word for those who die in war. "But we refused to let the Americans stop us."

In the years after the war, before Iraq accepted a U.N. deal to sell its oil to buy food, the rations were fairly meager. The government distributed locally grown wheat and beans as well as whatever other products it was able to import from Jordan and Syria in exchange for undeclared oil exports. The 1,275 daily calorie content of the rations was about half of what nutritionists recommended, enough to keep people from starving but not enough to prevent malnutrition, particularly among children.

"It just barely kept us from starving," Zaia Yawo said.

In 1996, Hussein's government reached a deal with the United Nations whereby Iraq would openly sell some oil on the world market and use the proceeds to purchase food and medicine. In 1998, the U.N. Security Council decided to expand the program by allowing Iraq to sell as much oil as it wanted to fund humanitarian goods.

Iraq now spends about $3.6 billion a year to buy food under the oil-for-food program, which amounts to about $11 per person per month. Although the shipments are just a fraction of the value of the country's pre-war food imports, they now are enough for Iraq to provide a daily ration that is close to U.N. nutritional guidelines.

Many Iraqis credit Hussein with keeping them fed under the sanctions, which have been cast by his government as an American plot to harm the Iraqi people.

The U.S. government "hoped the sanctions would lead to hunger, which would lead to disruption and anger, so the political system could be changed," said Trade Minister Saleh. "But we proved the failure of this theory."

Some here quietly express a dissenting view. "Why should we thank him?" a retired teacher said. "If he didn't invade Kuwait, there would be no sanctions and no need for the rations."

Opulence to Indigence

With its hulking cranes, cavernous warehouses and rows of brightly colored shipping containers, the Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf used to be a symbol of Iraq's oil-slicked opulence. Now it is a glaring example of this country's indigence.

Before the sanctions, deep-draft freighters from all over the world would unload German cars, Japanese electronics and U.S. steel. Plenty of food arrived too. "We would receive boxes and boxes of cheese from Denmark," said Ali Abdullah, a port supervisor. "And there were ships full of frozen chickens from South America."

Today, ships of the world still call at Umm Qasr, but to drop off large sacks of dry commodities. Since the port is under U.N. observation, the vessels must leave empty because the sanctions prevent Iraq from exporting anything other than oil, which is loaded onto tankers at another gulf terminal.

Even if the goods are not as posh as before, they are handled with urgency and efficiency. As soon as the giant gray cranes pluck out enough sacks to fill an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, the driver rumbles away, armed with a computer printout indicating the warehouse where he must drop off the cargo.

"I have a very important job to do," proclaimed Settar Hamzah, one of the drivers milling about the port on a recent morning as he waited for his turquoise Mercedes-Benz truck to be loaded with 50 tons of Brazilian sugar. "I'm helping to feed the people."

An hour later, he was off, headed to a distribution center near Baghdad. When he arrived 12 hours later, although it was pushing midnight, a dozen scruffy laborers were waiting for him, ready to spend the next several hours unloading the sugar by hand and hauling it inside the warehouse.

The sugar would be carted off in pickup trucks hired by neighborhood distributors around Baghdad, who would tear open the burlap sacks and parcel out the contents to people such as Esther Yawo.

A Comprehensive Database

Iraqi officials note with pride that the entire rationing system is computerized, in a way almost nothing else is here. The Trade Ministry maintains a database that lists the name, address and identity-card number of every Iraqi who receives a ration.

If a family moves, it must inform the ministry of the new address to keep receiving food handouts. If a new child is born, parents must submit a birth certificate to receive infant formula. If there is a death in the family, relatives have three months to notify the ministry, although officials said names often are automatically deleted from the database as soon as the Health Ministry prepares a death certificate.

"It's updated all the time," said Ahmad Mukhtar, a U.S.-educated engineer who supervises the computer center. "Births, deaths, marriages -- it's all there."

Mukhtar said the database is primarily used to distribute food, but the information also is shared with other government agencies, including the Health Ministry, which uses the system to produce ration booklets for prescription drugs.

The database is housed on several interconnected personal computers because Iraq is barred by the sanctions from importing more sophisticated file-storage devices. It has virtually eliminated double-dipping, false registrations and other forms of fraud as well as the delivery of too much or too little food to neighborhood distributors.

"If somebody abuses the system, the computer tells us immediately," Saleh said. If that happens, he said, the offender is required to pay the government twice the market value of the excess food received.

"People have confidence in the system because it's fair and it never fails," Mukhtar said. "When people go to their food retailer, the food is there."

Iraqi exile groups have accused the government of withholding food from political opponents and rewarding loyalists with extra rations. But Torben Due, the senior U.N. World Food Program official here, said his organization, which has conducted more than 1 million inspections of the system since the oil-for-food arrangement was enacted, has uncovered no significant evidence of fraud or favoritism.

Due said international experts regard Iraq's program, which feeds more people than any other rationing system in the world and is twice the size of the WFP's worldwide operations, as "the most efficient in the world."

"I don't think anybody could do something that is better in terms of accuracy and timely food distribution to the entire population," he said. "It's very impressive."

Hussein's government also supplies 60,000 tons of food a month to the 3.6 million people who live in an autonomous, Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Iraq under the protection of U.S. and British air patrols. The food is delivered to three warehouses near the border and from there is trucked north and distributed by the United Nations.

Although Trade Ministry officials have promised to keep the ration system operating during a war, Due said he fears a "catastrophe" if a conflict interferes with food shipments or if a change of government results in distribution being assumed by international aid organizations without participation of Iraqi civil servants.

"There's no alternative to the current system," he said. "There's no way we could create something else that would work half as well as theirs."

Because Iraqis are so dependent on food handouts, Due said, "if the system stops working for more than a month or two, we will have the risk of a large-scale humanitarian crisis."

Memories of a Comfortable Life

That is an outcome Zaia Yawo, a balding man with a salt-and-pepper moustache, cannot bear to contemplate. "We still haven't recovered from the last war," he said. "Now we're going to be attacked again?"

Unlike in 1991, Yawo, 53, said his family has no savings to fall back on if rations cease. These days, he makes 16,000 dinars a month as a teacher, but because of the currency's precipitous devaluation, his salary is worth less than $8.

So instead of spending his afternoons reading as he used to do in the 1980s, or devoting his evenings to preparing the next day's lesson plan -- his students are spending the year poring over Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" -- he gives private English lessons when he's not at school. His side job, which often keeps him busy until 9 p.m., brings in about $50 a month, but half of that is used to pay rent.

"I'm lucky to be an English teacher," he said. "If I taught history, I'd probably be driving a taxi."

With the extra income, Esther Yawo said, she is able to buy lamb and cheese a few times a week. The children can get new clothes. But family vacations and restaurant dinners are still out of bounds.

"We can't be too fancy anymore," she said. "But we don't have to go hungry."

Everywhere they go, there are reminders of what once had been their comfortable life. The service center where they receive their yearly ration card used to be one of Baghdad's fanciest malls, with boutiques selling Italian loafers and Japanese stereo systems, all at subsidized prices. Today it is musty, cold and dimly lit, with the abandoned stores converted into offices to coordinate food handouts for 1.6 million people across south Baghdad.

At their neighborhood distributor, the Milad Market, there also are memories of better days. The owner, Moied Gurgese, used to have freezers stocked with frozen chicken and lamb, shelves filled with eggs and bottles of imported spices. Now his back room is filled with the stuff of rations -- bags of Vietnamese rice, Egyptian cooking oil and Brazilian sugar -- which he dutifully dispenses to 160 families a month.

Gurgese said he has told his patrons that he will keep his shop open in the event of war. "I'll drive to the warehouse to pick up the rations," he boasted. "I will refuse to shut my doors."

It is that sort of attitude on which everyone from Hussein to the Yawos are relying.

"The Americans can drop as many bombs as they want," Zaia Yawo said. "But as long as we have food, we'll be fine. We'll survive like we have for all these years."

Zaia Yawo eats breakfast with two of his three children, Ogin, 12, and Doris, 7. Tea and flour for bread are supplied in their monthly ration. Esther Yawo watches Moied Youssef weigh her family's monthly ration of laundry detergent. The ration includes bars of soap as well as food. Workers at Umm Qasr port on the Persian Gulf unload bags of Algerian salt, which will be trucked to a warehouse near Baghdad, and from there to neighborhood distribution centers.