Iraq

U.S. steps up plans for food aid to Iraq

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By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. food aid to Iraq is being accelerated after private relief organizations and some lawmakers criticized the Bush administration for not doing enough to prevent a humanitarian crisis if war breaks out.

Congressional and U.S. agriculture industry sources told Reuters on Tuesday that grain would be withdrawn from a government-owned emergency reserve so that American-grown wheat and rice could be donated to the Iraqis.

A U.S. government source said Iraq would be offered hard red winter wheat, the type the country used to buy from the United States.

The U.S. donations would represent a reversal from less than a month ago, when U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios told Reuters he did not envision using the grain reserve for Iraq humanitarian relief.

The food aid would also come soon after U.S. agriculture groups lobbied the Bush administration to ship American-grown commodities, such as rice, to Iraq.

Even U.S. poultry producers weighed in on Tuesday, calling on the U.S. Agriculture Department to make chicken part of a food aid package for Iraq.

That request came as a trade dispute threatened the biggest export market for American poultry, Russia, prompting the domestic industry to scramble to find new foreign markets.

Currently, 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million citizens rely totally upon a U.N. oil-for-food program for food. Shipments under that program have been suspended because of the danger to vessels entering a likely war zone.

On Monday night, President George W. Bush gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to give up power within 48 hours or face war.

Private relief groups had been warning for weeks, however, that with war apparently imminent, there could be a gap between when millions of Iraqis need food handouts and when the food actually arrives.

Joel Charny, vice president of Refugees International, criticized the administration's food aid efforts to date as lagging. He said too much emphasis had been placed on supplying food for Iraqis several months down the road, ignoring more immediate needs that could arise.

Referring to the nearly 3 million ready-to-eat meals the U.S. government has already moved into the Middle East as the first stage of food aid, Charny said, "Three million meals would (only) feed 1 million people for three days."

BEYOND FOOD AID

After combat and once emergency needs were met in Iraq, the U.S. agriculture industry is hoping to recapture a commercial export market that was vibrant before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, rupturing relations with the United States.

Before the Gulf War, Iraq was the biggest export market for U.S. rice and a major buyer of wheat, poultry and other farm commodities. Those purchases were often made with the help of U.S. government loan guarantees.

Ray Abbas, an Iraqi American whose San Diego-based Luxor Exports Corp. did a flourishing business with the oil-rich nation until the 1991 war, believes U.S. firms will be selling to Baghdad again.

"We have a very good reputation with the Iraqis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and once the war is over the Iraqis will invite U.S. companies like us to do business," Abbas told Reuters in an interview.

"They (Iraq) will want to buy wheat, rice, lentils and corn," said Abbas, who emigrated to the United States 23 years ago.

For the past several years, Iraq has imported $2.6 billion worth of food and medicine annually, none of it from the United States.

Grains analyst Charlie Sernatinger of commodities brokerage O'Connor & Co. predicted that after a war, "From the (grain) trade standpoint, just about 100 percent of that is going to be U.S."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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