Sunday, March 21, 2004

First of two parts.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry complains that President Bush pursued a unilateralist foreign policy that gave short shrift to the concerns of the United Nations and our allies when it came to taking military action against Saddam Hussein. But the mounting evidence of scandal that has been uncovered in the U.N. Oil For Food program suggests that there was never a serious possibility of getting Security Council support for military action because influential people in Russia and France were getting paid off by Saddam. After the fall of Baghdad last spring, France and Russia tried to delay the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and continue the Oil for Food program. That’s because France and Russia profited from it: The Times of London calculated that French and Russian companies received $11 billion worth of business from Oil for Food between 1996 and 2003.

Most disturbing are Iraqi records that suggest Benon Sevan, the executive director of the Oil for Food office, received a voucher for 11.5 million barrels of oil from Saddam’s manipulation of the program — enough to yield a profit of between $575,000 and $3.5 million.

In a series of articles published earlier this year, the Iraqi independent newspaper al Mada reported on a list of several hundred individuals, corporations and political parties that benefited from Saddam’s oil vouchers and explained how the system worked. The intent of the program was to sell Iraqi oil to pay for food and medicine for the Iraqi people, who were suffering due to sanctions. Instead, vouchers were doled out as gifts or as payment for goods imported into the country in violation of U.N. sanctions. The recipient would then turn the voucher over to one of a number of firms operating in the United Arab Emirates, in exchange for commissions ranging anywhere from 5 cents to 30 cents per barrel, depending on market conditions. (This translates into a profit of $50,000 on the low end and $300,000 on the high end for every 1 million barrels worth of oil vouchers.)

The beneficiary list (found in the archives of the Iraqi Oil Ministry and translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute) should be deeply embarrassing to many prominent people. In the United States, those listed include Iraqi American businessman Shaker Al-Khaffaji, who put up $400,000 to produce a film by ex-U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, which aimed to discredit weapons inspections in Iraq. Also, British Labor MP George Galloway, a strident foe of taking action against Saddam, is listed as a recipient or co-recipient of 19.5 million barrels.

Other recipients include: former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua (12 million barrels); Patrick Maugein, CEO of the oil company Soco International and financial backer of French President Jacques Chirac (25 million); former French Ambassador to the United Nations Jean-Bernard Merimee (11 million); Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri (10 million); and Syrian businessman Farras Mustafa Tlass, the son of longtime Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass (6 million). Leith Shbeilat, chairman of the anti-corruption committee of the Jordanian Parliament, received 15.5 million.

Right now, Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a British investigator, is auditing the program on behalf of the Iraqi government. His findings, and the records reported on in the Iraqi press, deserve serious scrutiny. If it turns out that prominent politicians and businessmen profiteered while Iraqis were deprived of basic necessities that the Oil for Food program was supposed to pay for, there should be serious consequences, up to and including criminal prosecution.

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