Iraq war opponents fill oil-for-food ‘vouchers’ list

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Companies, politicians and pro-Saddam Hussein activists from countries that opposed the war in Iraq figure heavily in a list of about 270 recipients of suspected oil bribes from Iraq under the scandal-plagued United Nations oil-for-food program, investigators say.

The Russian government, a former French ambassador to the United Nations, the son of Syria’s defense minister and the U.N. undersecretary charged with running the oil-for-food program were included on the list compiled by Iraq’s state oil ministry under Saddam and published by a Baghdad newspaper in late January.

The discovery of the list has sparked an international debate over the run-up to the Iraq war and a round of global finger-pointing over the extent of mismanagement and corruption in the program.

The secret payments “provided Saddam Hussein and his corrupt regime with a convenient vehicle through which he bought support internationally by bribing political parties, companies, journalists and other individuals of influence,” Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a consultant retained by the Iraqi Governing Council to investigate the scandal, told a House hearing last month.

“This secured the cooperation and support of countries that included members of the Security Council of the United Nations — the very body that received over $1 billion in fees to administer the program,” he said.

Lawyer John Fawcett helped write a 2002 report by the Washington-based Coalition for International Justice that detailed Saddam’s ability to flout international sanctions in the decade after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, using illegal oil sales, bribes and kickbacks on food and aid shipments.

Although investigators caution that the Baghdad list has not been verified and contains at least a few questionable entries, “what’s in there pretty much bears out things we already knew,” Mr. Fawcett said.

“It’s long been clear from the record that Iraq was openly using the oil-for-food program to reward its friends and buy new ones,” he added. “It was the French, it was the Russians, it was maybe a hundred countries that were involved.”

The list includes a former French ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Bernard Merimee, who is named twice. It also includes Farras Mustapha Tlass, the son of Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass.

In addition, it names U.N. Undersecretary General Benon Sevan, a close aide to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The program, begun in 1996, was designed to address a growing humanitarian crisis in Iraq that Saddam’s government blamed on the sanctions. The U.N.-run program was supposed to allow Iraq to use money from oil sales to acquire food, medicine and other aid from a tightly restricted list.

From 1997 to 2002, Iraq sold $67 billion in oil and bought $38 billion in commodities under the program.

But a new General Accounting Office study estimates that Saddam’s regime was able to siphon off about $10.1 billion in illegal revenues, through clandestine oil sales ($5.7 billion) and special charges and kickbacks on oil and commodity deals ($4.4 billion).

The leaked Iraqi list of about 270 recipients covers just one year — 1999 — and relates to just one facet of the overall fraud: That is “vouchers” that could be sold by the bearers to legitimate oil brokers and shippers, who then would have the right to purchase and market the Iraqi crude.

Russia, which ardently opposed the war, has by far the most entries on the list, including 1.366 billion barrels allotted to the Russian government alone.

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