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Australia's wheat-for-weapons scandal puts PM in hot seat
Australian Prime Minister John Howard smiled and waved at the scrum of following reporters as he purposefully strode four city blocks to testify. For a man about to be grilled on the worst trade scandal in his country's history, he looked remarkably relaxed and confident.

Investigators have spent three months probing allegations that Australia's monopoly wheat exporter paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Saddam Hussein in the years leading up to the Iraq war.

The spotlight shifted during the past week to what Mr. Howard and his ministers knew of the kickbacks scheme, and whether they should have done more to ensure UN sanctions against Baghdad were not flouted.

On Thursday, Mr. Howard became the first Australian prime minister in 23 years to face a royal commission in what is proving to be biggest test of his credibility during a decade in office.

Like two cabinet colleagues who took the stand last week, he pleaded ignorance and said he had not seen a string of diplomatic cables that warned the Australian Wheat Board was paying bribes to win lucrative contracts.

"I believe that I did not receive or read any of the relevant cables at any time during the relevant period," Mr. Howard said during his 50 minutes in the witness box, adding his office received 68,000 memos a year and that only the most significant were drawn to his attention.

The oil-for-food program was introduced in 1996 to soften the effects of crippling sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It allowed Baghdad to sell oil and use the money to buy humanitarian goods.

But a year-long investigation, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, found widespread abuse of the system as Mr. Hussein extorted bribes from oil dealers and international companies hoping to win contracts. Firms in 66 countries abused the scheme, but the report named the AWB as among the worst offenders.

According to Mr. Volcker, the public agency paid $222-million (U.S.) in kickbacks to Baghdad between 1997 and 2003, thinly disguised as bogus trucking fees to a Jordanian company called Alia that was partly owned by Mr. Hussein.

But a flurry of top-secret memos released to the inquiry has shown that officials across several government departments, including the Prime Minister's office, were aware of possible wrongdoing by AWB.

The scandal does raise serious doubts about AWB's role as Australia's monopoly wheat exporter. The new Iraqi government has refused to do business with the company -- panicking many Australian wheat farmers and adding to a campaign to allow competitive tendering.

Australian Grain Exporters Association, called for AWB to be stripped of its monopoly status.
MGR Archive 18.4.2006
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