March 13, 2009

Iraq to import more Australian wheat

Iraq agreed to buy more Australian wheat after cutting imports over bribes paid to former President Saddam Hussein's regime, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Thursday (March 12).


"I'm pleased to note the statement made by the Iraqi trade minister that Iraq has agreed on new wheat sales from Australia to Iraq," Rudd told reporters after talks here with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.


The sanctions-busting kickbacks were paid by Australia's monopoly wheat exporter AWB Ltd. (AWB.AU), an Australian wheat exporter, to secure billions of dollars in grain deals with Iraq between 1999 and 2003 under a UN oil-for-food programme.


Iraq's new government suspended business with the AWB in 2006 after its role in the scandal surrounding abuse of the program was confirmed by an official inquiry.


A relatively small deal was done with other Australian wheat exporters in 2008, but the boycott was a big blow.


Rudd said the two countries were beginning "a new page" in their relationship, anchored in commercial and economic ties in agriculture, resources, public health, education, security and trade.


Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would lead a trade delegation to Iraq next year, he said.


Al-Maliki said his visit "reflects the desire of my government to strengthen the relationship with Australia and to move forward in the new phase which Iraq has entered".


Rudd, whose centre-left Labor Party ousted the former conservative government in 2007, last year fulfilled an election pledge and withdrew Australia's combat troops from Iraq.


He said, however, the security relationship between Australia and Iraq would remain important.


Al-Maliki described two major attacks in Baghdad recently as "regrettable" after a period of calm.


"Notwithstanding the gruesome operations that took place and the large number of victims, al Qaeda, extremists and terrorists in Iraq have lost their capabilities of confronting and challenging security forces in Iraq," he said.


"However what happens appears to have been an attempt by them to prove that they still exist. We are intent on doing our best to secure the situation."