(IHT) France is making classified documents available to investigators of suspected fraud in the United Nations’ oil-for-food program in Iraq in an attempt to refute allegations by a U.S. arms inspector that French companies abused the system, diplomats said Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve who is now heading the UN investigation, in a private meeting earlier this month that he would be given full access to France’s oil-for-food paper trail.
Barnier also said that Volcker could interview any individuals involved in the contracts, said one official at the Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We are completely open to this investigation – anything he wants from us he will get,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “It’s in everybody’s interest that this is cleared up.”
The comments come after the French government on Monday formally denounced as unsubstantiated the allegations in a recent report by Charles Duelfer, America’s chief weapons inspector, that businesses and officials in France accepted bribes from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The report, which was published on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Web site on Oct. 7, says dozens of individuals – most of them in France, Russia and China – received oil vouchers from Iraq that allowed them to buy oil and then resell it at a profit.
“It’s regrettable that the Duelfer report advances accusations that are not at all confirmed – and the report recognizes that,” said HervÃ© Ladsous, Barnier’s spokesman.
Toward the end of the report, a footnote acknowledges that none of the allegations had been verified.
The UN’s oil-for-food program, which came into effect in late 1996 and lasted until November 2003, was designed to ease Iraq’s access to vital civilian goods during the sanctions regime imposed on the country after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Since January of this year, allegations of corruption against companies, government officials and UN employees have multiplied in the international press.
The Duelfer report has added tension to a relationship strained ever since France became the most vocal opponent to the U.S.-led war in Iraq last year.
According to the French Foreign Ministry, Duelfer went outside his mandate, which was to assess whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or weapons programs, in making corruption allegations. That task falls to Volcker, one official said.
Diplomats also rejected the idea, floated in the media before the war and now back in vogue with the Duelfer report, that France tried to protect Iraq from war because it had big contracts and exports at stake.
They point out that out of the $3 billion in “French contracts” under the oil-for-food program mentioned by the report, more than $634 million went to French subsidiaries of American multinationals.
General Electric won deals worth $445 million and Halliburton $127 million. About $300 million went to the subsidiaries of British companies.
“There are several American and British companies that used their French subsidiaries to get access to the Iraqi market,” the official said. “It’s absurd to suggest that we didn’t want the war because of commercial interests in Iraq.”