Australian Premier Denies Misleading Public on Iraq

Australian Prime Minister John Howard (search) remained unrepentant Friday before analysts and opposition lawmakers who suggested his administration knowingly misled the country over the war with Iraq.

For several months Howard and his conservative government have fended off claims they deceived the Australian public over the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by Iraq to justify Canberra's commitment of 2,000 troops to the war.

But while Howard has largely escaped the fierce political pressure being applied to British Prime Minister Tony Blair over his alleged deceits on Iraq, Washington's admission this week that it doubted claims Iraq had sought uranium from Africa caused new headaches for Canberra (search).

Howard made the same claim to Parliament in a key speech outlining his reasons for joining the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

On Thursday, the Office of National Assessments — Australia's top intelligence analysis agency which reports directly to the prime minister — said it knew of doubts over the claims, but had not told Howard.

Later, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it also knew of reservations about the intelligence but had not told Howard or Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (search).

The revelations have re-energized critics.

"What we find, day by day, is a new revelation," said the opposition Labor Party's foreign policy spokesman Kevin Rudd, who claims Howard misled the public and Parliament. "Extracting truth from the Howard government on this matter is like extracting blood from a stone."

Analysts fear that the latest disclosures also raise questions about the competence of departments like the foreign ministry.

Michael McKinley, a security and defense researcher at the Australian National University, said the departments were either "totally derelict in their duty" or "they realized that the information itself would have been unwelcome ... and decided not to pass it on."

Howard remains defiant.

"Apologize? I apologize if I mislead people," Howard told Melbourne radio 3AW. "I don't accept that I deliberately misled people."

Opposition parties have set up a parliamentary inquiry to probe exactly what intelligence agencies told the government ahead of the war.