- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — Australian Prime Minister John Howard, one of America’s strongest allies in Iraq, meets President Bush at the White House today still smarting from his own embarrassment over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.

Before leaving for Washington, Mr. Howard was forced to apologize for misleading the public about when Australian defense officials learned about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

“I am very unhappy, and I was misinformed by the [Australian] Defense Department,” Mr. Howard told reporters in Canberra this week.

“We’re dealing here with what was clearly an inadequate briefing not only of me … but bear in mind that the chief of defense forces and the secretary of the defense department were also poorly served,” he said.

Australian military lawyer Maj. George O’Kane visited the Abu Ghraib prison in August and gave legal advice on interrogation techniques to the U.S. military police unit that now stands accused of the abuses.

The International Committee of the Red Cross raised concerns as far back as October about the advice Maj. O’Kane might have given, but Australian Defense Force chief Peter Cosgrove led the prime minister to tell Parliament that defense officials learned of the abuse only in January.

Mr. Howard said he has ordered Defense Minister Robert Hill to inquire into the lapse.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that defense attorneys for some of the accused American prison guards want to obtain a report prepared by Maj. O’Kane while he was in Baghdad.

“We’re very interested in this Australian officer,” Gary Myers, representing Sgt. Ivan Frederick, told the Herald. “We have already asked for the relevant documents in a discovery request.”

Mr. Howard’s government, an unflinching supporter of the Iraq war, has about 850 troops in the Persian Gulf region including about 300 in Iraq. Mr. Howard recently announced that he was sending 53 more troops to help train the new Iraqi army.

But with a general election slated for sometime after August and a Sydney Morning Herald poll showing that 63 percent of voters think the war was not justified, Mr. Howard will be looking for some favors at his White House meeting.

In particular, he is expected to push for early trials for two Australian citizens — David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib — who have been held without charges for two years at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The government says the two cannot be tried in Australia because the nation’s antiterror laws were passed after the men were arrested during the Afghanistan war in late 2001 and cannot be applied retroactively.

Habib’s attorney, Stephen Hopper, claims his client had done no wrong and that he was apprehended while traveling on a bus to an airport in Pakistan to return to his family in Australia.

Mr. Hopper says Habib has suffered both mental and physical abuse since his arrest. “He has been bashed, hit with pepper spray, his head shaved including his eyebrows and beard, and been deprived of his medication for depression.”

The United States has agreed to investigate claims that both Australian detainees were abused while in U.S. custody.

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