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Iraqi Leader on Historic Visit to Australia

Security and trade have been the focus of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's visit to Australia. It is the first time an Iraqi leader has made an official trip to Australia, a country which supported the American-led campaign to oust Saddam Hussein but last year withdrew its combat forces from Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Canberra, Nouri Al-Maliki said two recent major bomb attacks in Baghdad were "regrettable," after a period of calm. Despite the violence and loss of life, the Iraqi leader insists that extremists in Iraq have lost their ability to challenge and confront local security forces.

With the United States intent on pulling its troops out of the troubled country, Mr. Al-Maliki says Iraqi authorities will be able to cope, after the withdrawal.

Australia - a key U.S. ally in the invasion that forced Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 - pulled its combat forces out of Iraq in the middle of last year, fulfilling an election pledge by the incoming government of Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Australian troops still remain in Baghdad to guard diplomats and a navy frigate protects Iraqi oil wells.

Trade between Australia and Iraq has been another dominant theme during Mr. Al-Maliki's five-day visit.

Iraq has said it wants a significant increase in Australian wheat imports, which were slashed after a scandal about bribes paid to officials of former President Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Rudd says a new phase of cooperation will bring closer economic ties…

"The prime minister and I have agreed it is time to build a strong relationship, based on our broad commercial and economic ties," he said. "Iraq has also agreed on new wheat sales from Australia to Iraq."

Iraq hopes to purchase around one-million tons of Australian wheat this year - almost triple the amount it imported in 2008 and up from zero in 2007, when the effects of the bribes scandal were still being felt.

Back then, Australia's monopoly wheat exporter AWB was found to have paid $222 million in kickbacks to Saddam's government, in return for wheat deals.

That damaging period in relations between both nations appears to have passed and Australia will send a senior trade negotiator to Iraq to facilitate greater links. Officials from Canberra will also share with Iraqi farmers their expertise in cultivating crops in a dry climate.