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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 03:00 GMT 04:00 UK
Howard denies Iraq bribe warnings
John Howard, Australian Prime Minister
John Howard said the government was being "open and transparent"
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has denied knowing that an Australian company may have been paying bribes to Saddam Hussein's government.

He was being questioned by an official inquiry looking into claims that the Australian Wheat Board paid millions in bribes to secure contracts in Iraq.

He said he did not see more than 20 diplomatic cables warning that AWB might be paying kickbacks.

"I believe I did not receive or read any of the relevant cables," he said.

"I believe that the contents of the relevant cables were not brought to my attention at any time during the relevant period."

Named by UN

Mr Howard told the inquiry that "it was public knowledge that Iraq was rorting the oil-for-food programme," using an Australian expression which means to defraud.

"I was aware that Saddam had rorted the programme," he said, while being questioned for less than an hour.

But he added: "There was absolutely no belief, anywhere in the government, at that time that AWB was anything other than a company of high reputation."

I believe that the contents of the relevant cables were not brought to my attention at any time during the relevant period
John Howard

AWB was named in a UN report as one of dozens of companies from 66 nations that allegedly paid bribes to the Saddam Hussein regime.

It was accused of paying $222m (127m) via a trucking company that was a front for the regime, to secure lucrative grain contracts.

'No recollection'

Mr Howard said the fact that he and other ministers were testifying to the inquiry proved that the government was "open and transparent".

He is the first Australian prime minister to face an official inquiry since 1983.

Earlier this week, Trade Minister Mark Vaile and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer gave evidence to the inquiry, saying they did not recall the diplomatic cables sent between 2000 and 2004 raising concerns about the alleged kickbacks.

It is alleged that under the auspices of the oil-for-food programme - which allowed Iraq to export a limited amount of oil to pay for food - companies would pay for phantom services through front companies in return for inflated prices for their wares.

AWB, Australia's monopoly wheat exporter, was the largest single supplier of humanitarian goods under the UN scheme.

See John Howard giving evidence to the inquiry

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