A continuing lack of security is threatening to delay or significantly reduce the Iraqi grain harvest, according to press reports from Baghdad. The reports say Iraqi farmers could gather 800,000 to 900,000 metric tons of wheat and 700,000 tons of barley this season if they can get in their fields and move the crops to market.

But the output could be much smaller than that given the ongoing turmoil that has gripped Baghdad, Basra, and other Iraqi cities in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys where farmers have been producing grain since God told Abram to move his family to the land of Canaan.

The summer cereal harvest normally begins in the irrigated areas of southern Iraq in mid-May and continues as the harvest moves north, according to Dan Amstutz, the U.S. senior ministry advisor for agriculture in Iraq. Farmers also begin planting rice in mid-May.

Whether any of that takes place on schedule depends on U.S. forces restoring order and enabling Iraqi farmers and grain buyers to begin moving freely, according to observers. Repairs to the Iraqi power grid are also needed so flour can be milled and irrigation pumps started.

The reports say that what started as apparently random acts of looting and destruction have taken on a more sinister tone as armed gangs have been systematically emptying buildings of anything of value.

U.S. and Iraqi engineers charged with getting the country's electrical power system back into operation say they are being thwarted by thefts of air conditioners needed to cool the computers that handle the distribution power along the grid among other equipment.

Drivers of trucks that haul gasoline and other supplies from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad have begun refusing to make the journey unless accompanied by U.S. military escorts because of the almost daily hijackings along the route.

Some officials have been speculating that the thieves are former members of Saddam Hussein's special operations forces that melted into the general population after the fall of Baghdad on April 9.

U.S. military efforts to reconstitute the police forces in Baghdad and other cities have produced mixed results. About half of the 9,000 officers in the former Baghdad police force have returned to duty, but most are reluctant to confront the heavily armed gangs.

Iraqi officials say food warehouses have also been hit by looters, adding to the shortages that continue to plague humanitarian aid efforts. Reports say food and other products have been piling up at the port of Aqaba, meanwhile, because suppliers are concerned they will be stolen if they send them into Iraq.

L. Paul Bremer, the new U.S. administrator for Iraq, has proposed that funds from United Nations-administered Iraqi oil revenues be used to buy the wheat and barley Iraqi farmers are harvesting.

But Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the UN's top aid official in Baghdad, says more security is needed so the UN's World Food Program can move money and grain buyers around the countryside to purchase the crops.