Australia's defense chiefs launched an internal investigation on Thursday after revelations military officers knew last year of U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners as a backlash to the Iraq war grows before an election this year.
A parliamentary committee this week heard three government departments were aware of serious prisoner abuse by U.S. forces as early as last November although ministers in the government, a close U.S. ally that sent troops to Iraq, deny they were told.
Prime Minister John Howard, who is meeting U.S. President George Bush in Washington this week, says he did not know of the abuse until graphic photographs emerged in April but admitted the bad publicity was a setback for his conservative government.
In an embarrassment to the government, the Defense Department had to apologize after retracting claims that no Australians knew of the abuse until this year.
Australian Defense Force chief General Peter Cosgrove and the head of the defense department, Ric Smith, set up a fact-finding team to report back to parliament within the next two weeks.
"The team will gather all relevant facts and information in the possession of the Australian defense organization regarding detainee issues arising out of coalition activities in Iraq from the post-conflict phase in May 2003," they said in a statement.
Howard's eight-year-old government, which is neck-and-neck with opposition Labor ahead of an election tipped for October, sent 2,000 Australian military personnel to the U.S.-led war in Iraq last year with 850 still on duty in and around Iraq.
But the Australian government has distanced itself from the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib jail outside Baghdad as polls show 63 percent of Australians now believe the Iraq war was unjustified.
Howard said he was "very unhappy" he was misled by defense but he remains committed to the coalition in Iraq which is due to handover power to an Iraqi interim government on June 30.
"The prisoner abuse issue has made the articulation of the case harder, but it should not alter the fundamental position," he told reporters in Washington. "The fundamentals have not changed. We were right to do what we did."
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said no Australians were involved with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and rejected claims Australia had breached obligations under the Geneva Convention which governs the welfare of prisoners.
"In every case where we were involved in any way at all, the prisoners were actually detained by the Americans," he said.
But the opposition Labor party, which has vowed to bring the Australian troops home by Christmas if it wins power, said this was not an adequate explanation.
"It's simply not good enough for the government to say it's not our responsibility," said Labor spokesman Anthony Albanese.