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AWB briefed on war a year before the public
A senior diplomat tipped off wheat exporter AWB a year before the Iraq war that Australia would join the US-led invasion, new documents show.
The evidence appears to contradict the Howard government's statements that it did not decide to join the war before the invasion was debated in the United Nations in late 2002 and early 2003.
The revelation prompted the federal opposition to call for the Cole inquiry into AWB's Iraq kickbacks to be reopened and its terms of reference expanded - just 24 hours before the final report is handed to the government.
The documents, released by the Cole inquiry yesterday, show Australia's then UN ambassador John Dauth revealed the Howard government's position to former AWB chairman Trevor Flugge.
Mr Dauth briefed Mr Flugge in New York in February 2002 - 13 months before the invasion - and the details appear in minutes of AWB's February 27 board meeting tendered to the inquiry.
"The ambassador stated that he believed that US military action to depose Saddam Hussein was inevitable and that at this time the Australian government would support and participate in such action," the minutes say.
"The ambassador believed that the Iraqis grossly underestimated the US reaction to September 11 (with the consequent military response in Afghanistan) and that Iraq's request to renegotiate UN weapons inspectors was a direct result of their nervousness about US action.
"The ambassador believed that the latest olive branch from the Iraqis was likely to stave off US action (for) 12 to 18 months but that some military action was inevitable."
Mr Dauth - now high commissioner in New Zealand - predicted the Iraq war would be similar to the campaign in Afghanistan, with heavy use of air support followed by the deployment of ground troops.
"He undertook to ensure that AWB was given as much warning as would be possible under such circumstances but noted that in these instances often the Australian government had little notification," the board minutes said.
Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said the documents showed the Howard government was prepared to take AWB into its confidence a year before going to war - but not the Australian people.
The Cole inquiry, which is likely to recommend criminal charges against current and former AWB executives over the $290 million in illicit payments the company made to Iraq, should be allowed to continue with expanded terms of reference, Mr Beazley said.
"It lends further weight to that complaint that we've made about the terms of reference of the Cole commission, since the Cole commission was established," he said.
"It is not there to examine whether or not ... (the government) actually conformed with the requirements on them to properly administer the affairs of the nation, the reputation of this nation as well as the affairs of the wheat board executives which has been under scrutiny."
Commissioner Terence Cole will hand his report to Governor-General Michael Jeffery in Sydney at 2.30pm AEDT tomorrow.
It will be tabled in federal parliament next week, though the government is refusing to say on which day.