The first direct shipments of U.S. rice to Iraq since before the Gulf War have begun to arrive at the port of Umm Qasr, officials with the USA Rice Federation announced.

The initial shipments, which arrived in late June and early July, are being distributed around the country free of charge by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade. Subsequent shipments will be delivered to retail outlets.

The first shipments were for a 60,000-metric ton contract announced April 7, said Khalil Assi, director-general of Iraq’s State Company for Grain Trade. U.S. exporters have reported total sales to Iraq for 180,000 metric tons of rice.

“The Trade Ministry is looking forward to building a long-term partnership with the USA Rice Federation and working with its members to ensure sufficient quantities of American rice are available to the people of Iraq through food ration centers and retail outlets,” Assi told reporters.

“Iraq is an important market for American rice producers, and we are delighted to be back in Iraq commercially, in supermarkets and grocery stores, and through the government’s program,” USA Rice Chairman Lee Adams said from his office in Houston.

USDA figures show that Iraq’s consumption of U.S. rice peaked in 1987 when it imported 513,000 metric tons out of a total consumption of 547,000 metric tons, meaning that 94 percent of Iraq’s imported rice in 1987 came from the United States.

Commercial rice shipments to Iraq ceased after 1990 as a result of an embargo placed on Iraq during the Gulf War. The only U.S. rice shipments to Iraq were non-commercial World Food Program shipments in 2000 and 2003 of only 31,000 and 41,00 metric tons, respectively. There were no shipments of rice in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

The loss of the Iraqi rice market to U.S. rice for the entire 1991-2003 period conservatively totaled nearly $2 billion, according to the federation.

Experts estimate that the current demand for rice in Iraq is just over 1 million metric tons per year.