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Australian PM seeks apology from US senator on corruption claims
Updated: 2006-02-03 14:26

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard has demanded an apology from US Senator Norm Coleman over his claims that Australian government officials were complicit in illegal bribes paid to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, pictured 12 January 2006. The Australian government confirmed that it had lobbied the United States to drop an investigation into allegations that national wheat exporter AWB paid bribes to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. [AFP]

In a letter to Australia's ambassador to the United States, Dennis Richardson, and his predecessor Michael Thawley, the Republican senator said he was angry that officials had told him back in 2004 they were unaware of the kickbacks.

Coleman said that evidence given to an ongoing Australian inquiry into payments made to the Iraqi government under the UN oil-for-food programme by Australia's monopoly wheat exporter AWB suggested that government officials were aware of the corruption.

"I am particularly disturbed by the fact that evidence suggests that, despite Ambassador Thawley's representations to me, officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were aware of and complicit in the payments of the illegal kickbacks," Coleman wrote.

Coleman ended a US inquiry into allegations that AWB had paid bribes to Saddam's regime after representations from Thawley in 2004.

Howard said Coleman's inference was incorrect.

"I would like an apology from the American senator alleging that evidence had been given implicating government officials in the alleged scandal," Howard told commercial radio. "No such evidence is before the commission."

Senior AWB executives have denied knowingly paying bribes, saying they believed the cash was for transport fees, and have told an Australian commission of inquiry their deals with Iraq were approved by the government.

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