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Australia's Howard stands by Iraq nuclear report
( 2003-07-07 15:26) (Agencies)

Australian Prime Minister John Howard defended himself against accusations on Monday that he had claimed Iraq was developing nuclear weapons to justify going to war, despite being told by Washington the allegation was dubious.

In a speech to parliament in February, Howard cited US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions as a reason for Australia to join the United States and Britain in attacking Iraq.

"What I said on that issue was accurate," Howard told local reporters on Monday.

But Greg Thielmann, a former senior official with the US State Department, told The Age newspaper Australia would have known about concerns raised months before by both the US State Department and Department of Energy over the information.

"If the prime minister was reaching the conclusion that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons programme, which in our office was one of the biggest issues of all - well, we saw no evidence," Thielmann said.

Controversy is raging in the United States, Britain and Australia over claims their governments manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the war. No evidence of such weapons has been found by US forces in Iraq.

Australia's conservative prime minister said he was right to send a 2,000-strong force to the Gulf.

"Every day that uncovers more mass graves is a demonstration that there's a huge humanitarian and moral dividend out of what took place and that it was right," Howard said.

Opposition parties in Australia are holding a parliamentary inquiry into Howard's use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq's alleged chemical and biological arsenal.

The United States and Britain have also been criticised by ex-US Ambassador Joseph Wilson for citing a CIA report on Iraq buying uranium from Niger, which the International Atomic Energy Agency dismissed as being based on forged documents.

Wilson told The New York Times he was sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the report and found it doubtful a deal between Iraq and Niger had taken place. He accused Bush of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq.

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