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Howard called before Iraq bribes inquiry

The Australian PM said he had been summoned to give evidence at an inquiry into the payment of sanctions-busting bribes to Iraq.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2006 10:59 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on Wednesday that he had been summoned to give evidence at an inquiry into the payment of sanctions-busting bribes to Saddam Hussein's Iraq by the nation's monopoly wheat exporter.

Howard said in a statement he was "happy" to appear on Thursday before the commission of inquiry headed by former judge Terence Cole.

The commission is investigating the payment by AWB, formerly the Australian Wheat Board, of 220 million US dollars in bribes to obtain 2.3 billion dollars in contracts under the UN's oil-for-food programme in Iraq.

Howard will follow Trade Minister Mark Vaile and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer into the witness box.

Vaile, who was grilled on Monday, and Downer who appeared on Tuesday were asked what they knew of the bribes and when they knew it, and Howard is expected to face similar questions.

Both ministers have been ridiculed in the Australian media for telling the inquiry that they did not recall seeing more than 20 diplomatic cables over a period of years, which warned of possible problems with AWB's Iraqi contracts.

Howard, who sent Australian troops into Iraq with the US-led coalition, which toppled Saddam in 2003, has also publicly denied knowledge that kickbacks were paid.

The inquiry has heard that the bribes were funnelled to Baghdad through a Jordanian front company, Alia, as trucking fees, and were paid out of inflated prices claimed for the wheat.

The UN programme, which ran from 1996 to 2003, allowed Iraq to export a limited amount of oil to buy food and medicine to lessen the impact of sanctions on civilians, with the money passing through UN accounts.

A UN report found last year that some 2,000 companies worldwide were implicated in corrupting the programme, with AWB paying the biggest bribes.

First Published: Apr 12, 2006 10:59 IST