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Howard Claims No Knowledge of Kickbacks to Saddam

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says he did not know that a national wheat exporter was paying millions of dollars in alleged bribes to Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi leader was ousted.

The Australian Wheat Board is under investigation by an Australian commission over its dealings with Iraq as part of the troubled United Nations oil-for-food program.

The commission revealed Monday that Mr. Howard wrote a letter to the A.W.B. in 2002, saying it was important to maintain wheat sales to Iraq. Mr. Howard wrote the letter after Baghdad threatened to halt Australian wheat imports.

Mr. Howard acknowledged writing the letter, but denies his government was ever involved in paying kickbacks.

The commission is also investigating the wheat exporter's dealings with Pakistan. At a hearing in Sydney today, a lawyer for the inquiry said the A.W.B. allegedly paid $12 million to a Pakistani agent to secure a wheat deal with Pakistan.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.