Australian Official Testifies in Oil-for-Food Inquiry

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer denied Tuesday seeing a string of diplomatic cables warning the Australian government that the country's monopoly wheat exporter was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein.

Downer was the second minister to appear at the inquiry into allegations the Australian Wheat Board, now known as AWB Ltd., paid $220 million to Baghdad to secure grain contracts worth more than $2.3 billion between 1997 and 2003 under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program.

And like Trade Minister Mark Vaile on Monday, Downer — in a written statement to the inquiry made public as he took the stand — repeatedly denied having seen a string of warnings sent by diplomats to Canberra about AWB's possible corruption.

"I do not have a specific recollection of having received or read this cable or (it) otherwise being brought to my attention," Downer wrote 21 times in his sworn statement about the cables.

Late Tuesday, inquiry lawyer John Agius said Prime Minister John Howard had sent the probe a written statement on what he knew about the scandal. The statement was not published but Howard is expected to be questioned on it, likely on Thursday, making him the first prime minister to testify at such an inquiry since 1983.