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IRAQ: Bribes Offered in Australian Wheat Lobbying Drive

An Australian government appointee to the US-led occupation government in Iraq attended a secret meeting with a businessman who had offered to bribe "influential people" in the new regime to secure wheat contracts.

by Marian Wilkinson and Cynthia BanhamThe Sydney Morning Herald
February 16th, 2006

A HOWARD government appointee to the US-led occupation government in Iraq attended a secret meeting with a businessman who had offered to bribe "influential people" in the new regime to secure AWB contracts.

Details of the meeting in London emerged yesterday at the Cole inquiry into the UN oil-for-food scandal. The inquiry heard evidence of a massive lobbying effort by AWB, called Operation Hunta, to secure its wheat contracts in Iraq after the war.

The head of AWB's Iraq desk, Chris Whitwell, told the inquiry that he met with his boss Michael Long in London in June 2003, shortly after Mr Long was appointed by the Howard Government to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Mr Whitwell took the stand just as the inquiry learnt for the first time of internal AWB "market briefs" on Iraq, spelling out that the fees AWB paid for trucking wheat inside Iraq were being funnelled to Saddam's regime.

The "market briefs" recorded that the fees were "approved by the UN", despite no evidence this was the case.

The market briefs would normally be sent to the government regulator, the Wheat Export Authority. But the Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, last night released a letter from the authority's chief saying it had no documents spelling out the payments to the Iraq regime.

The authority received only one of the three market briefs. But critically, the one it got did not contain the revealing information about the "trucking" fees going to the Iraqi regime.

The inquiry's head, Terence Cole, QC, said the new documents would have substantially changed the examination of key witnesses before the inquiry and AWB lawyers were struggling to explain why the documents had not been produced earlier.

But even this controversy was overshadowed by revelations about AWB's operation to secure its contracts in postwar Iraq.

At least three AWB figures were appointed to the provisional government in Iraq by the Howard Government, and documents indicate all were covertly working for Operation Hunta.

Mr Whitwell told the inquiry that Mr Long flew from Baghdad to meet him in London soon after an executive from Tigris Petroleum, Norman Davidson Kelly, had warned him that his company needed to begin receiving payments from AWB.

Mr Whitwell said Mr Davidson Kelly had "intimated a number of influential people will need to start receiving funds and that further delays may cause difficulties going forward".

Asked by Mr Cole what this was code for, Mr Whitwell replied: "It set off an amber light that this was a bribe".

Mr Whitwell said he and Mr Long discussed his "concerns" about paying influential people.

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