Wednesday, October 6, 2004

The governments of France, Russia, China and Syria blocked U.S. efforts within the United Nations to stop Saddam Hussein from misusing the oil-for-food program, a State Department official told Congress yesterday.

Patrick F. Kennedy, a State official who is a representative to the United Nations for management and reform, told a House hearing that other U.N. member states “resisted” U.S. efforts to end bribery and contracting corruption under the program aimed at providing humanitarian relief from anti-Saddam sanctions.

“We began pushing for a system to bring this under control,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It was resisted by other nations. We were challenged.”

Mr. Kennedy told the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations that the opponents asked the United States for hard evidence of corruption.

France, Russia, China and Syria were among the members of a special committee overseeing the oil-for-food program that opposed U.S. efforts to stop corruption that led to more than $10 billion being stolen by Saddam and his regime, Mr. Kennedy said.

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican and subcommittee chairman, said the oil-for-food program, which lasted from 1996 to 2003, was “mugged” by Saddam, who diverted some of the revenue to purchase arms.

“Through cynical yet subtle manipulation, he and an undeclared coalition of the venal on the Security Council exploited structural flaws in the program and institutional naivete at the U.N. to transform a massive humanitarian aid effort into a multibillion-dollar, sanctions-busting scam,” Mr. Shays said at the hearing.

Mr. Shays said in an interview later he thinks that Saddam was able to use money he obtained illicitly from the program “any way he wanted” and that he probably bought weapons and military technology with some of the $10 billion.

Representatives of three companies involved in the oversight of the oil-for-food program also testified at the hearing that they had little control over how funds were used.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the subcommittee sought to widen the panel’s probe to include the United States. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, said an investigation is needed into the Bush administration’s refusal to release audits of a $1.5 billion contract in Iraq granted to the oil company Halliburton to repair oil-production facilities after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Vice President Dick Cheney was chief executive officer of Halliburton from 1995 until 2000, and Democrats repeatedly have tried to link the administration to claims of government favoritism toward the firm.

Mr. Shays said the committee will ask the Defense Department to release the Halliburton audits, but yesterday’s hearing remained focused on charges of corruption in the United Nations’ $64 billion program designed to allow Saddam’s government to buy food and supplies for Iraqi civilians with revenues obtained from limited oil sales.

“Acceding to shameless assertions of Iraqi sovereignty, sovereignty already betrayed by Saddam’s brutal willingness to starve the Iraqi people, the U.N. gave the Hussein regime control over critical aspects of the program,” Mr. Shays said.

“Chinese, French and Russian delegates to the Security Council sanctions committee deftly tabled persistent reports of abuses,” the House panel chairman said, and as a result, “the contractors hired to finance and monitor the program had only limited authority to enforce safeguards.”

“The U.N. sanctions regime against Iraq was all but eviscerated, turned inside out by political manipulation and financial greed,” Mr. Shays said. “Saddam’s regime was not collapsing from within. It was thriving. He was not safely contained, as some contend, but was daily gaining the means to threaten regional and global stability again, once sanctions were removed.”

Mr. Kennedy defended the oil-for-food program.

“Despite what might in the end be identified as inherent flaws, the oil-for-food program did enjoy measurable success in meeting the day-to-day needs of Iraq’s civilians,” he said.

Other U.S. officials disagreed.

Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s senior policy official, said the oil-for-food scandal had undermined the United Nations’ integrity.

“It’s clear that the program was badly abused,” Mr. Feith said in an interview.

The investigation is important because “there are a lot of people, ourselves included, who want there to be options short of war when there’s a problem,” Mr. Feith said.

“And you know, one of the options short of war was a kind of sanctions regime that the oil-for-food program was supposed to provide,” he said. “If it’s a completely corrupt program and it doesn’t work and it’s ineffective … then you have fewer options short of war.”

David Smith, a U.S. representative of the French bank BNP Paribas, which was the exclusive bank of the oil-for-food program, said the bank had no role in the contracting.

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