Monday, May 3, 2004

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.

A score of giant Russian oil firms, several Kremlin ministries and even the Russian Orthodox Church are listed as having received the vouchers. The church and many of the companies in question have denied wrongdoing.

Just 10 French organizations and officials are on the oil-for-food list, but they include a top adviser to President Jacques Chirac and France’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1999.

French denials of wrongdoing in the scandal have been particularly heated.

Jean-David Levitte, France’s ambassador to the United States, rejects the idea that there was an oil-for-food “scandal” and has blamed conservative critics of France and the United Nations for publicizing the list.

In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News last month, he noted that the United States imported far more oil from Iraq than France during the sanction years and that the United States had the right to review every contract approved under the oil-for-food program.

“It is important to understand that nothing regarding Iraq could have been done without the approval of the United States,” he argued.

Several questions surround the list.

It is not clear, for example, whether those named actually received the secret vouchers or were simply targeted for bribery. And oil companies that received the vouchers might not have profited directly, but kicked back the money to Saddam and his allies as one more price of doing business with a corrupt regime.

Pro-Iraqi activists in the United States, Britain and other countries that backed the war also showed up on the list.

Antiwar British legislator George Galloway, who already has pressed one successful suit against press charges that he was bribed by Saddam, denied obtaining the vouchers good for 19 million barrels of oil he reportedly was given.

“In my own case, I have never owned, bought or sold oil, or rights to oil, nor has anyone on my behalf,” Mr. Galloway wrote in the London Guardian, accusing the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi and Republicans in U.S. Congress of pushing false stories.

Mr. Fawcett said the extraordinary range of suspected recipients showed the breadth of Saddam’s corruption and his willingness to work with — and pay off — anyone who could advance his cause.

The voucher list includes sympathetic Arab journalists; leading Palestinian militant groups; Communist parties in Russia, Belarus and Slovakia; an adviser to Pope John Paul II; and recipients from 52 countries ranging from Algeria and Austria to Yemen and Yugoslavia.

“One big thing about this list is that it gives the lie to the argument that Saddam was a secular leader who wouldn’t work with fundamentalist terrorists like al Qaeda,” said Mr. Fawcett.

“Saddam would work with anybody he thought could help him.”

The scandal has spawned a number of probes, including one commissioned by Mr. Annan with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker at the helm. Three congressional committees held hearings on the oil-for-food program last month, and the new Iraqi authority in Baghdad is promising more sensational revelations as Saddam’s secret files come to light.

Mr. Annan, yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said any U.N. staff member found to have participated in corruption “will be dealt with severely.”

“Their privileges and immunities will be lifted so that, if necessary, they will be brought before the court of law and dealt with, in addition to being dismissed,” he said.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Michigan Republican, told a House International Relations Committee hearing last week that the U.N. oil-for-food scandal reminded him of down-home political influence-buying and corruption in his Wayne County district.

“In many ways, we are seeing a political machine that is accused of doing something wrong and the tactics that the machine uses to defend itself are quite similar,” he said.

“There will be confusion, distraction and an internal investigation controlled by the machine, the results of which may or may not be for public consumption. And it is all to defend the institution.”

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