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Australia's Oil-For-Food Scandal Claims First Major Victim

The managing director of Australia's monopoly wheat exporter has resigned amid allegations his company paid millions of dollars in bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime under the United Nations' oil-for-food program. The company is the focus of a government inquiry.

Andrew Lindberg is the first major casualty of Australia's oil-for-food inquiry. The allegation is that Lindberg's company - AWB Limited - paid more than $200 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein's government in order to secure lucrative wheat deals with Iraq.

In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange Thursday, AWB's board of directors said Lindberg's resignation was in the best interests of the firm.

His decision to quit is not an admission of any wrongdoing, but it will likely prompt increased public focus on AWB.

At an official inquiry into the allegation here in Sydney, senior AWB officials have admitted authorizing payments to the former Iraqi government under the now-discredited oil-for-food program, but they did say they thought the payments were legal.

The money was paid to a Jordanian trucking company that was to take Australian wheat into Iraq. The executives said they had no reason to believe that these transportation fees were bogus, or that they violated U.N. sanctions.

Even as the inquiry continues, the scandal has put the government of Prime Minister John Howard on the defensive. The opposition Labor party has accused Mr. Howard of knowing that bribes were being paid.

Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, calls the scandal unprecedented in Australia.

"John Howard is engaged in an exercise of saying, well, the government knew of allegations, but had no evidence, and so what do we do? Absolutely nothing," said Rudd. "And what's the result? Three hundred million dollars filtered through to Saddam Hussein; the biggest corruption scandal in Australia's history."

The prime minister has repeatedly denied that his government knew that AWB was making illegal payments to Saddam Hussein.

"I did not know," said Howard. "My ministers did not know. And on the information that I have been provided and the advice I have received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I do not believe that the department knew that AWB was involved in the payment of bribes."

The investigating team is expected to publish its findings towards the end of the year.