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Iraq Accepts Disputed Shipment of Australian Wheat - 2002-08-18

Iraq has finallly accepted a shipment of Australian wheat it turned away after Canberra said it would back a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq. The deal was brokered by officials from Australia's wheat industry, which has appealed to the government of Prime Minister John Howard to tone down its anti-Iraq rhetoric.

Iraq had threatened to stop buying Australian wheat apparently because of Prime Minister Howard's public backing of Washington's proposal to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force.

Tons of grain have been stranded on ships in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, with Baghdad claiming the wheat was contaminated. But Sunday, Australian wheat exporter AWB announced all issues have been resolved and the grain will be delivered.

Australia exports two-million tons of wheat each year to Iraq under the U.N. oil-for-food program designed to ease the impact of U.N. sanctions on Iraqi civilians. The program, set-up after the Gulf War, allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to buy humanitarian supplies.

The trade is worth more than $400 million to Australian farmers every year. The wheat board has appealed to the Australian government to take a more diplomatic stance on Iraq to secure next year's contract.

The Howard administration, however, remains unmoved. A spokesman says Australia could not stand by while Saddam Hussein continues to sponsor terrorism and potentially threaten the West with chemical and biological weapons.

The opposition Labor Party has criticized the Howard government for taking a "Rambo-like" approach to the Iraq issue, raising tensions and threatening lucrative Australian wheat exports to the Iraqi market.

On Sunday, Mr. Howard reiterated his support for the American position on Iraq, saying he would commit Australian troops if needed. He said he hoped military action could be averted but 'unavoidable circumstances' could push his country into war.