Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A longtime ally of French President Jacques Chirac and a leading British critic of the Iraq war received huge contracts to resell Iraqi oil from Saddam Hussein under the U.N. oil-for-food program, Senate investigators have found.

In findings being released today, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations charges that former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and British Member of Parliament George Galloway each received the right to market more than 10 million barrels of cut-rate oil from dictator Saddam’s Oil Ministry between 1999 and 2003.

Senate investigators, who will air their findings in a hearing next week, based the new report on internal Iraqi documents, Oil Ministry correspondence and interviews with top Saddam-era officials such as detained Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, said the findings “paint a disturbing picture of the dark underside of the oil-for-food program.”

“This report exposes how Saddam Hussein turned the oil-for-food program on its head and used the program to reward his political allies like Pasqua and Galloway,” he said.

Mr. Pasqua, who now serves in the French Senate, and Mr. Galloway both strenuously denied accepting bribes from Saddam after their names surfaced on a list of 270 politicians, companies and other organizations published by a Baghdad newspaper last year suspected of accepting oil allotments.

“I have said and thus I confirm that I have strictly nothing to do with this affair. I never received anything,” Mr. Pasqua said last month after French police questioned one of his top aides about the oil-for-food scandal.

Mr. Galloway, one of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s more ferocious critics over the Iraq war, quit the Labor Party and won an upset victory over a Blair supporter for a seat in Parliament in the May 5 election.

The British lawmaker last year won judgments against the London Daily Telegraph and the Christian Science Monitor after they ran stories relying on forged Iraqi Foreign Ministry documents that Mr. Galloway had been paid directly by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s.

“I have never seen a barrel of oil, never owned one, never bought one, never sold one,” Mr. Galloway insisted in a 2003 interview.

But Senate investigators say they based their findings on different documents from the Iraqi Oil Ministry files and from direct testimony from Saddam aides.

Documentary evidence released by the subcommittee indicates that Mr. Pasqua received the right to buy 11 million barrels of oil from the Saddam regime between May 1999 and December 2000, often using a Swiss firm as a front.

U.S. and Iraqi investigators think Saddam used the discount allocations to buy political backing around the world as he tried to undermine U.N.-imposed sanctions.

Recipients of the allocations could immediately resell the oil to legitimate marketers at a higher price. The typical markup was 3 cents to 30 cents per barrel, making Mr. Pasqua’s reported allocation worth as much $3.3 million.

Based again on Iraqi Oil Ministry documents and interviews with senior Saddam aids, the subcommittee said Mr. Galloway received allocations for 20 million barrels — with a resale value of up to $6 million — between June 2000 and June 2003.

The report reveals that a senior Iraqi official under Saddam told U.S. investigators last year that “Galloway used a foreign company to broker the sale of the oil allowances. The name of the company was Middle East Semiconducting Co.”

The oil allocations are a prime focus of the wide-ranging investigation into the United Nations’ $64 billion oil-for-food program, the biggest financial scandal in the world body’s history. The U.S. Government Accountability Office last year said Saddam used bribes and oil smuggling to siphon off about $10 billion from the program before it was shut down in 2003.

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate investigation panel, said the new findings show that “the United States and other U.N. Security Council members made a fundamental mistake in allowing Saddam Hussein to award oil-for-food contracts and issue oil allocations.”

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