Australian deputy PM on Iraq wheat mission

Australia's deputy prime minister, Mark Vaile, is to travel to Iraq to try to secure Australian wheat sales as the oil-for-food scandal continues.

Iraq is presently considering where to buy one million tonnes of wheat from, but has suspended business with Australia's wheat export company, AWB, pending the outcome of an inquiry into the scandal.

The Cole Inquiry is examining claims AWB paid up to US$220 million in kickbacks to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein under the United Nations oil-for-food program.

The mission by Mr Vale comes against the background of concerns for the Australian wheat industry.

A Greens Senator is predicting a difficult short-term future for Australia's wheat farmers, despite the government's attempts to secure access to the Iraqi market.

Rachel Siewert said there needs to be a serious review of the monopoly system.

"I suspect that there hasn't been enough thought really given at this stage to the long term and they're looking for quick political fixes," she said.

"We really need to be looking at the longer term, so I suspect what will come out of today, it'll be a short term response."

Earlier, Australia's prime minister, John Howard, said AWB will allow rival wheat bodies to bid for the Iraqi wheat tender.

The announcement followed talks between the Mr Howard and AWB's chief executive, Brendan Stewart, on whether to relax the company's export monopoly.

Mr Howard said AWB has agreed not to exercise its veto on the tender, for the benefit of Australian wheat growers.

Shares in AWB were earlier placed on a trading halt ahead of today's meeting.

- RADIO AUSTRALIA

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