Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The United Nations has yet to prove it can police itself by investigating the $10 billion oil-for-food scandal under Saddam Hussein, but Iraq’s interim government has done a good job securing thousands of documents related to the probe, U.S. lawmakers said yesterday.

“There are still a lot of folks wishing this investigation would just go away,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton, Texas Republican who chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I think the U.N. should cooperate a little bit more” with multiple congressional probes into the scandal, said Mr. Barton, who led a delegation that just returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq and Kuwait.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated that Saddam’s ousted regime stole some $10.1 billion from the U.N.-administered program between 1997 and 2003, pocketing some of the money and doling the rest out in bribes and kickbacks to those helping Iraq evade economic sanctions.

Senior U.N. officials have been implicated in the scandal, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this year named former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker to head an independent inquiry into the program.

Mr. Barton and fellow Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and George P. Radanovich of California toured a secure repository at an undisclosed site in Baghdad containing what they said were huge numbers of notebooks detailing oil-for-food deals.

Many of the documents were in English and Mr. Upton said that a few of the contracts he reviewed raised questions over whether they violated the U.N. programs’ ostensible humanitarian purpose.

One contract worth approximately $1.02 million was for camera equipment from a Russian supplier.

“You could see immediately that there were real suspicions about how [the program] was organized and run,” Mr. Upton said.

The lawmakers said Iraq’s Board of Supreme Audit and the international accounting firm Ernst & Young appear to have firm control of the documents. A competing audit by former Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi no longer appears to be involved with the oil-for-food probe, they said.

The Energy and Commerce Committee probe is one of four congressional investigations into the oil-for-food program, the largest financial scandal in the history of the United Nations. The GAO, the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department are also investigating the scandal.

But relations have not been smooth with the probe headed by Mr. Volcker, who has kept a tight rein of the United Nations’ internal records as he conducts his own investigation. Mr. Volcker has assembled a staff but is not expected to issue his first report for several months.

Mr. Barton said he had had a “cordial conversation” with Mr. Volcker over the investigation, but said that as a congressional committee chairman, he had subpoena powers, ample funding and other investigative tools that the U.N. probe will not have.

Heritage Foundation researchers Nile Gardiner and James Phillips, in a new analysis released this week, said the Volcker panel “bears all the hallmarks of a toothless paper tiger” and is “clearly open to U.N. manipulation.”

Mr. Barton said, “My mandate comes from the people of the United States of America, and quite frankly, I will take the United States of America over the United Nations any day.”

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