UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Friday for a broad independent probe into the U.N.-administered Iraq oil-for-food program, saying it was “highly possible” there had been a lot of wrongdoing.
Annan, in his first comments on the burgeoning allegations, has been under pressure to conduct an investigation into corruption from Iraqi leaders as well as the U.S. officials searching for former President Saddam Hussein’s hidden assets.
The United Nations has begun an in-house probe of its own staff but Annan stressed a wider, independent investigation was needed to cover outside firms and individuals.
This would involve approval from the 15-nation Security Council, which supervised the program.
“I think we will need to have an independent investigation, and an investigation that can be as broad as possible to look into all these allegations which have been made and get to the bottom of this, because I don’t think we need to have our reputation impugned,” Annan told reporters.
“It is highly possible there has been quite a lot of wrongdoing,” he said.
The program, begun in December 1996, involved oil companies paying revenues to a U.N. escrow account while the United Nations paid suppliers of goods Iraq bought. Its purpose was to ease the impact of 1991 Gulf War sanctions on ordinary Iraqis.
A comprehensive probe, U.N. officials said, would need support from council members to investigate the middle men who bought the oil, companies that supplied civilian goods and the French bank BNP-Paribas, which handled a U.N.-Iraqi account.
Since some of the firms and individuals charged with accepting bribes are nationals of the 15 council members, the body could set limits on any probe.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, an interagency body, headed by the Treasury Department is trying to locate and seize $10 billion to $40 billion in estimated hidden Iraqi assets.
Of this amount, the GAO in a report on Thursday, charged that Saddam acquired $5.7 billion from the proceeds of oil smuggled through Syria, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.
Iraq’s elites raised an additional $4.4 billion in illegal revenue by imposing oil surcharges and commissions from suppliers of goods to Iraq under the oil-for-food program.
Annan and his deputy, Louise Frechette, have been meeting with Security Council members individually on an investigation, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.
“Council members appear to agree to this view,” Eckhard said, though other envoys said there appeared to be little urgency from most members.
Annan said the United Nations would go “ahead full speed” in investigating its own staff. This would include charges against the head of the U.N. oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, who has denied them.
But Annan said, “Given the nature of the operation, which involved so many companies, so many countries, we will need quite a lot. Whoever undertakes the investigation will need quite a bit of cooperation from others.”
The allegations come at a time when the United Nations is mending its relations with the Bush administration but is being bashed by U.S. conservatives and the conservative press, which has come close to calling the world body an evil empire.
Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council’s finance committee and a fierce critic of the United Nations, is in charge of the Iraqi probe.
He has hired a long-time acquaintance, British businessman Claude Hankes-Drielsma as an adviser. The KMPG international accounting firm has been hired through Hankes-Drielsma to go through the Iraqi documents and give the United Nations a report.