- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

NEW YORK — French, Russian and U.N. officials warned against making hasty judgments yesterday after the U.S. Iraq Survey Group reported that Saddam Hussein had used the U.N. oil-for-food program to buy influence at the United Nations.

The report accused key officials — including former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and retired U.N. oil-for-food director Benon Sevan — of accepting oil vouchers, which could be exchanged secretly for cash.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard yesterday noted that Mr. Sevan had denied the charges, and he urged patience until a U.N.-appointed panel, led by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, issues its own report.

The accusations “are a relatively minor part of this report yesterday, which focused primarily on weapons of mass destruction,” Mr. Eckhard told reporters.

“We have nothing new to say. That matter is clearly in the hands of Paul Volcker. We are cooperating with him.”

The U.S. report, which was posted on the CIA Web site (www.cia.gov), generated a flurry of angry denials.

“I never took a drop [of oil] or a single dollar from Iraq or from any other country. I have never dealt with oil,” the Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Zhirinovsky as saying.

The nationalist Russian politician was a frequent visitor to Saddam’s Iraq.

In Jakarta, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry dismissed the accusations as “far-fetched.”

Some of the gravest accusations in the report by the U.S. Iraq Survey Group (ISG) are against senior French officials, including charges that they accepted payoffs to counterbalance U.S. power inside the sanctions committee on the U.N. Security Council.

“According to [former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq] Aziz, both parties understood that resale of the oil was to be reciprocated through efforts to lift U.N. sanctions or through opposition to American initiatives within the Security Council,” the report said.

French officials urged caution in reaction to the scandal.

“It is important to assure oneself very precisely on the veracity of this information,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous.

“We understand that these accusations against companies and individuals were not verified either with the people themselves or with the authorities of the countries concerned.”

At the United Nations, France’s ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, tersely deflected reporters’ questions.

“I will let my colleague in Washington answer that, but these allegations are unacceptable,” he said.

The ISG, headed by former U.N. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, on Wednesday issued a 1,000-page report detailing Iraq’s quest for weapons of mass destruction, including the possibility that more than $10 billion had been wrung from oil sales authorized by the U.N. program.

The ISG found a pattern of gifts and bribes to officials of nations serving on the Security Council, in an apparent effort to hasten the crumbling of the already weak sanctions on the regime.

The regime was “using every tool possible, through its deception, front companies or sweetheart deals on oil and other things, to try to suborn the sanctions regime and try to acquire things it was not supposed to be buying under the sanctions regime,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

Mr. Duelfer told Congress in releasing the report on Wednesday, “It’s pretty clear that the Iraqi strategy and tactics of dividing the Security Council were having a fair amount of success.

“I think that’s clear in the report when you see that the amount of conventional military equipment that was being sold to Iraq, being transported into Iraq … with the help of some Security Council members, there is, in my mind, little doubt that the … constraints that the U.N. was able to put around Iraq were collapsing.”

The report fueled impatience on Capitol Hill over the slow pace of the Volcker investigation and the U.N. refusal to make documents available to Congress.

“The world cannot wait years for answers to the growing body of evidence implicating senior U.N. officials in outright corruption,” said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

He called for “immediate public access” to internal U.N. documents.

U.N. officials say privately that they hoped Mr. Volcker could work a little faster, at least to investigate the apparent complicity of their own personnel.

The first phase of the independent investigation, originally expected next month, is not expected to be ready until early 2005, according to a U.N. official.

“Obviously, the secretary-general is keen to get to the bottom of this, get it out in the open and over and done with,” an official said. “But I do not think he can put any pressure on him [Mr. Volcker] to speed it up.”

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