- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

British lawmaker George Galloway yesterday categorically denied charges he took bribes from Saddam Hussein under the U.N. oil-for-food program, denouncing a Senate probe of his dealings as the “mother of all smoke screens.”

“I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one — and neither has anyone on my behalf,” he said, dismissing both the charges and the Senate investigation as “utterly preposterous.”

The British member of Parliament said he could not explain why his name appeared on internal Iraqi documents detailing the deals, suggesting at several points they were forgeries put together by Saddam’s former aides trying to win favor from the U.S. “puppet government in Iraq.”

Following the unusually feisty Capitol Hill clash, Sen. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican spearheading the investigation into the oil-for-food scandal, said that many of Mr. Galloway’s denials were simply not believable.

“We didn’t get much more than a blanket disclaimer,” Mr. Coleman said after the morning hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations. “I just don’t think he was a very credible witness.”

Mr. Galloway, a fierce opponent of U.N. sanctions on Saddam’s regime and of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, flew to Washington to answer charges that Saddam’s oil ministry had secretly given him rights to buy and resell millions of dollars worth of Iraqi oil under the U.N. humanitarian program.

Mr. Galloway was one of several senior figures, including top officials in France and Russia, named in subcommittee reports as receiving the oil rights in return for their political support of the regime.

Subcommittee investigators found that Mr. Galloway’s name and that of a charity he founded appeared on a number of internal Iraq Oil Ministry records. Saddam’s aides confirmed his role in interviews, they said.

Both Mr. Coleman and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said they found it “incredible” that Mr. Galloway would not have known a Jordanian businessman named Fawaz Zureikat, one of the major backers of his charity, was also paying kickbacks to Saddam on oil-for-food contracts.

Mr. Galloway said fundraising is “seldom pretty,” and that he never inquired into how Mr. Zureikat made his fortune.

Mr. Levin repeatedly asked the British legislator to say he would be “troubled” to learn that a close associate was undermining the U.N. relief program, something Mr. Galloway declined to do.

“The fact that he was not troubled troubles me,” said Mr. Levin.

The outspoken Mr. Galloway, considered a maverick in British politics, has a long history of support for Iraq’s efforts to end the U.N. sanctions, praising Saddam’s “courage and fortitude” during a much-criticized trip to Baghdad in 1994.

He was expelled from Britain’s ruling Labor Party for his fierce opposition to Prime Minister Tony Blair over the war that ousted Saddam, and earlier this month defeated a Labor candidate to win a seat in the new Parliament.

He brought some of the British parliamentary cut and thrust to the generally staid American congressional hearing room.

He accused a stone-faced Mr. Coleman of “gall” and complained he had been given no chance to answer the subcommittee’s charges before they were published.

Mr. Galloway repeatedly tried to turn the hearing into a debate on U.S. policy toward Iraq, saying “neocon hawks in Washington” such as Mr. Coleman had based the case for sanctions and war on a “pack of lies.” At a post-hearing press conference, he refused to take questions from news outlets he deemed “too neoconservative” and belittled Mr. Coleman as “not much of a lyncher.”

Mr. Coleman said he had tried to keep the hearing focused on the documents and record compiled by his investigators, whose authenticity he said Mr. Galloway could not challenge. Mr. Coleman and Mr. Levin were the only senators who showed up to question the British lawmaker and quizzed him for barely 20 minutes.

“This wasn’t a wrestling match,” Mr. Coleman said. “I had one goal and that was to establish a credible record. I think we did that.”

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