Thursday, December 2, 2004

President Bush yesterday called for “full disclosure” of the United Nations oil-for-food scandal, although he declined to join Republican demands for the ouster of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“It’s important for the integrity of the organization to have a full and open disclosure of all that took place with the oil-for-food program,” Mr. Bush said during an Oval Office appearance with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Mr. Bush also vowed not to postpone Iraq’s elections, scheduled for Jan. 30 and promised to oblige U.S. commanders who requested additional troops to provide security during the contest.

The president did not directly answer a reporter who twice asked whether Mr. Annan should resign. Such a move was demanded Wednesday by Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, who is investigating the oil-for-food scandal.

“We share the concerns that members of Congress have,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “The American people want to have assurances, from their standpoint, with the taxpayer dollars that go to support multilateral organizations like the United Nations.”

The Senate Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations, which is chaired by Mr. Coleman, has disclosed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime skimmed billions from the oil-for-food program, which was administered by the United Nations. The program was ostensibly designed to let Saddam sell a small amount of oil to pay for food and humanitarian assistance for Iraqi civilians.

But there is growing evidence that Saddam used his illegal revenues to bribe officials in France, Russia and other nations that later opposed the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq. It has been revealed that Mr. Annan’s son, Kojo, accepted money from a Swiss company that had a contract with the oil-for-food program.

On Oct. 21, Mr. Annan said of the scandal: “We want to get to the bottom of it and clear it as quickly as possible.”

But since then, investigators have said, the United Nations has been less than fully cooperative.

“When an organization says there’s going to be serious consequences if something doesn’t happen, it better mean what it says,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “The United States participates in multilateral organizations, and we expect those organizations to be effective.”

The president was reprising rhetoric he used in 2003, when the United Nations balked at enforcing its own resolution promising “serious consequences” against Saddam. Mr. Bush views the burgeoning oil-for-food scandal as a similar test of the United Nations’ credibility.

“I look forward to the full disclosure of the facts [and an] honest appraisal of that which went on,” he said.

The president’s comments were echoed by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

“It’s not our job to prejudge the facts,” he said. “We have urged the United Nations to make available documents that Congress has requested so that those investigations will have access to all of the facts that they need.”

But Mr. Coleman said his probe already has gathered enough facts to demonstrate that Mr. Annan must step aside.

“The most extensive fraud in the history of the U.N. occurred on his watch,” Mr. Coleman wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “As long as Mr. Annan remains in charge, the world will never be able to learn the full extent of the bribes, kickbacks and under-the-table payments that took place under the U.N.’s collective nose.”

Mr. Coleman is conducting one of two major investigations into the oil-for-food scandal. The other was commissioned by the United Nations and is being conducted by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

But Mr. Volcker has no subpoena power, and his report eventually must be turned over to Mr. Annan, who can decide how much of it, if any, to make public.

Also at yesterday’s Oval Office appearance, Mr. Bush dismissed a reporter’s suggestion that Iraq’s elections, scheduled for next month, should be delayed until security is improved.

“The elections should not be postponed,” he said. “It’s time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls, and that’s why we are very firm on the January 30th date.”

Mr. Bush defended his decision to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq and extend the stays of others in order to beef up security. He said he was merely granting the request of U.S. commanders in Iraq.

“We want to help them have their presidential elections,” he said of the Iraqis. “And at some point in time, when Iraq is able to defend itself against the terrorists who are trying to destroy democracy, as I’ve said many times, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”

Meanwhile, the president said the United States is watching the election crisis in the Ukraine “very carefully.” He also said Russia should not try to influence any new election that the Ukrainians might hold to resolve the dispute sparked after a recent contest marred by widespread fraud.

“The will of the people must be known and heard,” he said. “And therefore, we will continue to monitor and be involved in a process that encourages there to be a peaceful resolution of this issue.”

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