Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Canberra responded coolly Tuesday to Iraqi threats to slash imports of Australian wheat in retaliation for Australia's support of U.S. policies toward Baghdad. Those policies include the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike on Iraq.
Suppliers did voice alarm, however, at the prospect of losing out on sales to one of Australia's most significant wheat customers.
The announcement came from Saddam Hussein's trade minister, Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, who was quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency Monday (INA) as saying that Baghdad would cut its imports by half, and end them altogether if the situation does not improve.
"The decision was taken after the hostile stand of the Australian prime minister and some members of his government in supporting aggressive threats of the evil American administration against Iraq," Saleh said.
INA did not say what specific policies the minister was referring to, but in recent weeks both conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his defense and foreign ministers have expressed understanding for Washington's view of Iraq.
The approach contrasted strongly with that taken by many European allies of the U.S., prompting speculation that Australia would actively support any military action taken to topple Saddam.
According to one Mideast news service's version of Saleh's comments, the Iraqi complained not only about Australia's support for the U.S., but also about the presence of Australian troops in the region, demanding their immediate withdrawal.
Australian forces in the region are participating in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan.
The Australian Navy is also involved in the multi-national interception force deployed in the Persian Gulf to enforce a trade embargo against Iraq.
On Tuesday, Australian Defense Force spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said an Australian warship last Friday had helped block 16 vessels in the Gulf trying to smuggle oil out of Iraq.
Australia ships wheat to Iraq under the U.N.-approved "oil-for-food program," which permits Baghdad to sell oil in exchange for humanitarian items. Its aim is to help alleviate the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, although many observers suspect the regime is abusing the program.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on Tuesday dismissed Saleh's threat, saying Canberra was not about to adopt a policy of appeasing Saddam.
"We can't put ourselves in the position internationally where we chop and change our views on the adherence to Security Council resolutions, and the need to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, because some country threatened to downgrade our trade," he told Australian radio.
If Iraq made good on the threat, he added, it would end up paying more for poorer quality wheat from elsewhere, and its people would be the losers. Australia would find other markets.
"If in the end the Iraqi regime - which is not a palatable regime - decides that they want to downgrade Australia's trade, we will live with the consequences of that."
But Australia's grain marketing organization, AWB Ltd. (originally the Australian Wheat Board), which supplies the bulk of Iraq's wheat requirement, was more concerned about the threatened action.
A statement sent in response to queries said AWB was "obviously concerned about the potential impact on its sales and marketing program" and would work closely with both governments in a bid to resolve the issue.
AWB said the Iraqi government had notified it that an order for half a million tons of wheat had been "put on hold."
The company said it sold around two million tons a year to Iraq, "one of our most significant markets," and had been exporting wheat to Iraq for more than 50 years.
"Iraq continues to be one of Australia's major export destinations and AWB will be working with the appropriate authorities to ensure that our trading relationship continues with this important customer."
The country's top farmers' body, the National Farmers' Federation, declined to comment Tuesday about the potential impact, but a former federation head, Ian Donges, was quoted as saying the Iraqi move would potentially reduce the price for Australian wheat and put pressure on growers.
Iraqi's charge d'affaires, who heads the diplomatic staff at its Canberra embassy, would not take a call Tuesday, but a staffer referred to quoted remarks by Saad al-Samarai questioning why the Australian government was acting in support of the U.S.
Samarai was reportedly called in by the Foreign Ministry Tuesday to discuss the wheat threat.
'No blank check'
Foreign minister Downer has been an outspoken critic of the Iraqi government. Last March he said Canberra would "like to see Saddam Hussein overthrown" and replaced by a "more democratic and more reasonable" government.
Two weeks ago, he criticized those pressing for a policy of appeasing Saddam even as he allegedly continued efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"Only a fool would support a policy of appeasement and just hope that by ... doing nothing about Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the whole problem will go away."
Those comments, like earlier ones by Defense Minster Robert Hill endorsing the "strike first" policy enunciated by President Bush on June 1, prompted unease among Australian opposition parties.
In a bid to defuse some of the concern, Prime Minister Howard late last week stressed that Australia had "not given ... any country a blank check about Australian military involvement," nor would it do so.
But, he told an Australian Broadcasting Corp. phone-in show, "if we receive a request from the U.S., it will be considered at the time on its merits and according to the circumstances. We are, nonetheless, a very close ally of the U.S."
"We understand America's position and I think you have to look at the overall behavior of Iraq."
U.S. 'Strike First' Strategy Gets Thumbs-Up From Australia (Jun. 20, 2002)
Australian PM Under Fire For Supporting Bush On Terror War (Feb. 5, 2002)
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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