Agricultural Exporters Look Hungrily at Iraq; U.S. Sold Rice before '91 War

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

American agriculture companies are eyeing export opportunities in Iraq, historically a major market for U.S. growers.

"Before [the Persian Gulf war], they were our largest export market," said Richard Bell, chief executive officer of Riceland Foods, a Stuttgart, Ark.-based grain cooperative that sold rice to Iraq.

But in 1990 Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, and in 1991 a U.S.-led coalition pushed Iraq out. The military conflicts and ensuing U.N. sanctions wiped out Iraq as a major destination for U.S. commodities.

Iraq was a $726 million market for U.S. agricultural products in 1989, with wheat and rice the leading commodities, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers. Iraq was the biggest market for U.S. rice and the seventh-largest market for wheat.

But U.S. agricultural exports to Iraq were cut by more than half in 1990 and have not since approached pre-Gulf war numbers - dipping as low as zero during several years.

Riceland's sales to Iraq, for example, stopped completely after 1998, with political tensions high, the Iraqi government opposed to buying U.S. products and the United Nations-run oil-for-food program handling the country's legal food imports.

The oil-for-food program was implemented in 1996 and allowed Iraq to use proceeds from oil sales to buy food, medicine and equipment to keep the oil industry running.

The Iraqi government chose companies and governments it would do business with, and the United Nations approved products and transactions.

"We participated in that, but I have to admit it was a hassle," Mr. Bell said.

With U. …