CANBERRA (AFP) – Iraq wants a huge increase in Australian wheat imports previously slashed after a scandal over bribes paid to the regime of former president Saddam Hussein, officials said Thursday.
Iraq is interested in buying around one million tonnes of Australian wheat a year — almost triple the amount it imported in 2008 and up from zero in 2007, Trade Minister Simon Crean said.
The announcement came as an Iraqi delegation led by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki met top Australian officials for talks dominated by economic and trade issues, including cooperation on oil and gas exploration.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters after his meeting with Maliki — the first Iraqi prime minister to visit Australia — that he was “pleased to note” the Iraqi agreement on new wheat sales from Australia.
Australian wheat exporter AWB paid kickbacks to secure billions of dollars in grain deals with Iraq between 1999 and 2003 under a United Nations oil-for-food programme.
After Saddam was ousted by US-led coalition troops, Iraq’s new government suspended business with the AWB in 2006 when an official inquiry confirmed its role in abuse of the UN programme.
In 2008, Iraq took about 348,000 tonnes of wheat from other Australian traders, but the earlier boycott was a big blow to one of the world’s major wheat exporters, which shipped about 1.2 million tonnes to Baghdad in 2005.
Rudd said the two countries were beginning “a new page” in their relationship, anchored on agriculture, resources, public health, education, security and trade.
Agriculture Minister Tony Burke will lead a trade delegation to Iraq next year, he said.
He said Australia would help train Iraqis in the oil and gas exploration industries, “in partnership with our support for large Australian resources companies and their desire for increased commercial opportunities in Iraq”.
Maliki told oil experts in Baghdad last month that Iraq needed foreign expertise to develop its oil sector and increase production, which would enable it to reactivate the country’s industrial and agricultural sectors.
The Iraqi prime minister said his visit to Canberra reflected his government’s wish to strengthen ties with Australia.