WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saddam Hussein’s regime reaped over $21 billion (11.4 billion pounds) from kickbacks and smuggling before and during the now-defunct U.N. oil-for-food program, twice as much as previous estimates, according to a U.S. Senate probe.
The monies flowed between 1991 and 2003 through oil surcharges, kickbacks on civilian goods and smuggling directly to willing governments, Senate investigators said at a hearing on Monday.
“How was the world so blind to this massive amount of influence-peddling?” asked Republican Senator Norm Coleman, head of the investigations subcommittee.
Coleman made public more documents he said were evidence of bigger kickbacks and payments than what was previously known, including 2003 data previously not reviewed.
The new Senate figure is about double the amount estimated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which had pegged it at $10.1 billion. Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, had estimated about the same amount based on Iraqi documents, with $2 billion through the U.N. program and $8 billion in smuggling by road or sea or in direct illegal agreements with governments.
The oil-for-food program began in December 1996 to alleviate the impact on ordinary Iraqis of sanctions, imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The U.N. Security Council allowed Iraq to sell oil and buy food, medicine and other goods and let Baghdad draw up its own contracts.
This left room for abuse in the $64 billion program, administered by the United Nations and monitored by a U.N. Security Council panel, including the United States, according to investigators.
Oil smuggling alone netted Saddam’s regime about $9.7 billion, with other funds flowing from switching substandard goods with top-grade ones, as well as exploiting food and medicine shipments to the Kurds in Iraq’s north.
Panel investigators also echoed the findings by Duelfer, head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, that Saddam’s regime gave lucrative contracts to buy Iraqi oil to high-ranking officials in Russia, France and other nations.
On the list of 270 individuals, businesses and political parties was the head of the U.N. oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, who has vigorously denied the charges.
Other recipients include Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Russian Liberal Democrat Party. The Senate panel released a document signed by Zhirinovsky in January 1999 that invited a U.S. oil company to Moscow to negotiate to buy the oil voucher. The name of the U.S. company was withheld because of pending investigations, panel staff said.
In Russian press statements, Zhirinovsky has denied taking bribes from Saddam’s regime, though he admitted meeting with the former Iraqi president during trips to Baghdad.
Senior Iraqi officials like former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz were also personally involved in oil talks, Senate panel investigators said.
In each case, Saddam’s regime awarded a certificate that allowed the holder to sell the right to buy Iraqi oil at below-market prices.
The certificate holder would charge a per-barrel commission to transfer the rights to an oil buyer. Per-barrel fees were usually less than $1 per barrel but racked up big dollar amounts because allocations upward of 1 million barrels were routine.
The United Nations has refused to hand over documents to a U.S. congressional committee or allow Sevan to appear before a panel while its own investigation is under way, led by Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York that Secretary-General Kofi Annan had telephoned Coleman and Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, “to assure them we are not being obstructionist” following an angry letter last week from the two senators.
Here Is The Official Version: