THE Tigris affair began as a sharp bit of business disguised as a great humanitarian gesture that morphed into a loan repaid as a secret commission after the fall of Baghdad. It was the filthiest of all AWB's deals with Iraq.
The donor was BHP, back in 1996 when it was still the big Australian. But a decade on, the Cole inquiry is trying to untangle a web of intrigue that draws together big oil, big wheat, big names, a very big scandal and high stakes - the Halfayah oilfield, one of the richest in Iraq, with reserves the size of Bass Strait.
Out front are big public names: BHP Energy's president Phil Aiken; Liberal Party stalwart and BHP Billiton executive Tom Harley; AWB's former managing director Andrew Lindberg and executive Charles Stott; the former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind who lobbied for BHP; and the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, who was swept up in the hopes of Australia winning a slice of Iraq's oil wealth after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
More shadowy characters were pulling strings behind the scenes in Baghdad, Melbourne and London. These include a former BHP executive and chief of Tigris Petroleum, Norman Davidson-Kelly, who has refused to return to Australia from Britain to give evidence to the Cole inquiry; his Baghdad agent Sabah Jumah; and the former head of the Iraq Grain Board, Yousif Abdul Rahman, who once worked in the Iraqi oil ministry.
These last three all played a role in clinching AWB's final and most dubious million-tonne wheat deal done in the last months before the capture of Baghdad. As well as being loaded with all the usual kickbacks and surcharges, the deal was constructed to repay a supposed $US8 million debt owed to Tigris Petroleum by Iraq.
What has always been difficult to understand is why the Iraqis were so keen to pay this money to an obscure little company just months before the war began. And perhaps more difficult to grasp is why AWB's most senior executives agreed to help Tigris pull off this deal and then wash the money from a UN escrow account through AWB's books. The deal was so dodgy some of AWB's managers demanded legal absolution before they would touch it.
Tigris grew out of the ruins of BHP's big plan in the mid-1990s to win the right to exploit one of the richest oil fields of Iraq. When the country was starving, BHP proposed a "great humanitarian gesture": shipping up to 100,000 tonnes of wheat to Baghdad on credit. In exchange, the company was hoping for a warm welcome at the Iraqi oil ministry. Commissioner Terence Cole, QC, suggested this was, in fact, "a soft bribe".
But the plan began to fall apart when the Labor government refused to bend sanctions. The rules were clear: absolutely no credit deals with Iraq. So the first shipload of wheat worth $US5 million was sent off in early 1996 - with approval from the UN as a gift. But a gift did not put the Iraqis under any formal obligation to BHP. Documents produced to the Cole inquiry show that BHP and AWB continued to regard this as a sale on credit - with repayment either in five years or as soon as sanctions were lifted.
BHP hoped this would happen any day. But instead of sanctions going, the oil-for-food program arrived. This was bad news for BHP. Iraq did not need their sort of "humanitarian gestures" any more and there was still no prospect of being paid for the one shipment already sent.
With BHP stymied, its petroleum boss, Aiken, passed its Iraq interests to a private company run by one of his former senior oil executives, Davidson-Kelly. The new company, Tigris Petroleum, registered in Gibraltar with unknown owners, was also given the services of BHP's local Iraqi agent, Sabah Jumah, plus the right to recover its wheat "debt", which was now worth $US8 million.
Davidson-Kelly began lobbying old friends at AWB to get the money repaid. On the surface, it looked like a fool's errand: Iraq was broke and had no access to hard currency except through the UN account that bankrolled the oil-for-food program. But in late 2002 AWB's wheat sales were in trouble and Davidson-Kelly lent a helping hand through his fixer, Sabah Jumah. New contracts to sell a million tonnes of wheat signed in December that year were loaded with a number of kickbacks including payment of the Tigris "debt".
With Iraq open for business again after the invasion, Davidson-Kelly had two strategic aims: to ensure those contracts were honoured by the UN, and to win rights to the country's largest oil fields with BHP Billiton. Tigris and BHP Billiton signed a deal in May 2003 and approached Downer to help them with their claim for the Halfayah field.
Downer's chief adviser on the Iraq Task Force, Bill Paterson, told the minister their legal claim to the field was not strong but recommended that when meeting BHP Billiton executives and their lobbyist, Malcolm Rifkind, in London in May, he should "respond sympathetically to their representations". Paterson's submission explained the purpose of the meeting was to ask Downer to raise their claims "at ministerial level with the US Government".
Downer met Rifkind in London, but would tell the Cole inquiry he had no recollection of ever meeting Davidson-Kelly. Nor did the minister have any idea of the wheeling and dealing going on over the Tigris "debt".
Davidson-Kelly was impatient. In May he called AWB's headquarters in Melbourne to ask the company's Middle East manager, Chris Whitwell, when the wheat contracts would be approved. The Tigris boss explained: "A number of influential people will need to start receiving funds and that further delays would cause difficulties going forward".
Whitwell believed Davidson-Kelly was talking about paying officials in the newly liberated Iraq, and he told the Cole inquiry these remarks "set off an amber light that this was a bribe".
The old wheat contracts with most of their kickbacks intact were finally approved in September 2003 and the money flowed into AWB's accounts over the next few months. Then came the problem of finding some plausible basis for paying the funds to Tigris. In the end, BHP's "great humanitarian gesture" was repaid as "commission" to Tigris for help in securing wheat sales in Iraq. AWB executives insist its legal advisers cleared the payment, but they have declined to let the advice be seen by the Cole inquiry.
The payout was a great result for everyone - except the newly liberated Iraq, which was footing the bill. AWB pocketed $1.3 million for its services and more than $5 million disappeared to the mysterious owners of Tigris.
Meanwhile, BHP Billiton was back in the oil business in Iraq through Tigris working in a joint venture with Shell to develop a slice of the Halfayah field. BHP Billiton insists its ethics policy "absolutely prohibits" any payment of bribes to win business and that this strict rule applies to its dealings with all third parties like Tigris.
Nevertheless, there will be many parties to this strange affair awaiting Cole's report with trepidation.