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Australian Leader Testifies at Iraq Corruption Hearing

  • Phil Mercer

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has told an inquiry commission that he did not know the country's wheat exporter was bribing Saddam Hussein. Mr. Howard is the third senior member of the government to testify this week. The commission investigating allegations that the exporter paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to secure lucrative Iraqi grain contracts.

John Howard spent less than an hour on the witness stand Thursday. The prime minister said he knew nothing about the bribes an Australian company was alleged to have paid Saddam Hussein.

AWB Limited is accused of flouting international sanctions by paying kickbacks to the former Iraqi leader.

Mr. Howard told the inquiry that his advisers had not informed him about warnings from diplomats that raised concerns about AWB's dealings in the Gulf.

The hearing has been told that diplomatic cables on the matter were sent over several years.

Speaking before his appearance at the commission Prime Minister Howard said the government is behaving openly and honestly.

"Australia alone has established an inquiry - a public inquiry - with the powers of a royal commission and that includes compelling the production of documents which is crucial in relation to a matter such as this. And I think overwhelmingly this demonstrates how open and transparent the government has been," he said.

It is alleged that Australia's monopoly wheat exporter paid more than $200 million in bribes during the United Nations oil-for-food program for Iraq. The program allowed the Iraqi government to sell oil to purchase essential items, such as food and medicine.

AWB was the largest single supplier of humanitarian goods under the program.

According to a United Nations report released last year, the company was among hundreds around the world involved in corruption in the oil-for-food program. That report persuaded Australia to launch its own investigation.

Mr. Howard is the first Australian prime minister to face a judicial inquiry in more than 20 years. Opposition politicians say they do not believe he has told the truth about the matter.

Recent opinion polls indicate that many Australians also do not believe the government has told the truth to corruption investigators.

The inquiry's job is to determine if AWB staff broke any Australian laws. It is due to hand down its findings in June.

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