Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced that the Bush administration is providing 200,000 metric tons of wheat to Iraq with another 400,000 metric tons to be made available as needed.

The initial offering will come from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust. A portion of the wheat will be exchanged for rice so that a combination of grains will be available to feed the Iraqi people.

“President Bush has assured the people of Iraq that they will have the food and medicine they need,” Veneman said. “Today's action is part of a closely coordinated U.S. effort to prepare for the humanitarian consequences of conflict and to insure that the Iraqi people have the help they need to attain freedom and prosperity in a liberated nation.”

“The United States is committed to insuring that there is minimal disruption to the Iraqi food distribution system. Today's donation will go a long way to insuring that the people of Iraq continue to have access to food,” said Andrew S. Natsios, Agency for International Development administrator.

The first shipment of wheat is expected to begin moving next week, and more wheat and rice will follow over the next several weeks, said Veneman.

USA Rice Federation representatives said the exact tonnage of rice is unknown, “due to the somewhat complex method to be used by the U.S. government to procure it. However, the timeframe reportedly will be as fast as possible with tenders going out from USDA's Kansas City office as early as Friday, March 21.”

They said a portion of the initial 200,000 tons of wheat will be sold in the United States and the proceeds used to buy rice, which will then be shipped to Iraq. A portion of the subsequent 400,000 tons of wheat will also be sold and swapped for rice, they said.

“We are gratified that the U.S. rice industry can help the people of Iraq during this difficult period,” said John Mentis, the USA Rice Federation's vice president of domestic and international promotion. “And we appreciate that the Bush administration has recognized the validity of our arguments that rice is a perfect for food aid wherever there is a need.”

The commodities will be provided through PL 480, Title II, the U.S. government's major humanitarian food aid program administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development. AID has pre-positioned water, blankets, shelters, medical kits and other relief supplies to be sent to Iraq.

The United States is working in close partnership with international institutions and other nations as well as private voluntary organizations to insure the rapid delivery of humanitarian relief for Iraq.

The Emerson Trust, named for the late congressman for the Missouri Bootheel, is an emergency reserve under the authority of the secretary of agriculture. It is available for humanitarian relief in developing countries, allowing the United States to respond to unanticipated food crises.

U.S. food aid programs under Title II are currently fully allocated this fiscal year, and use of the reserve will help insure that sufficient commodities are available to respond to needs in Iraq without affecting U.S. food aid commitments elsewhere in the world. The reserve was reauthorized through 2007 by the 2002 farm bill.

U.S. rice organizations have been hopeful that developments in the Middle East could help restore what was once a major market for U.S. rice exports in Iraq.