Oil-for-food scandal widens
Corruption charges might implicate United Nations officials and national political leaders.

New York (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Like an oil slick in the sea, the scandal related to the Oil-for-food (OFF) programme is getting bigger and bigger. Under the terms agreed to by the United Nations and Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq was allowed to sell oil and use its proceeds to purchase food and essential humanitarian goods for the Iraqi population.

Two commissions of inquiry—one by the UN itself, the other by the US—are currently investigating what seems to have been a vast kickback scheme organised by Saddam Hussein involving UN officials and political leaders in different countries

According to a US Senate Committee investigating the UN oil-for-food programme, illicit earnings from oil sales reached US$ 21.3 billion. US papers are also delving into the issue. The New York Times has for instance raised doubts about UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who "could hardly ignore such a fraud". Norm Coleman, chairman of the Senate Committee, charged Annan of blocking access to certain documents. In response, the Secretary General said that he did not hand them over to the US committee because he was "giving priority to the UN Independent Inquiry Committee".

The US Senate Committee's findings do confirm the list published some months ago implicating many political leaders from several countries including Russia, France, Germany, China and Italy.

The scheme was simple. Saddam Hussein sold oil as part of the OFF programme on a discount through certificates whose holders could then resell it at market prices pocketing the difference.

Transactions took place outside official UN channels but were covered by UN officials. Real as well as bogus companies received a percentage from the sales to facilitate the transactions.

Corruption also involved food imports going to the Iraqi population. Saddam is thought to have bribed some officials in order to buy low-quality food and sell it as high-quality.

Investigators for the UN Independent Inquiry Committee yesterday went to Russia to gather documents on possible Russian beneficiaries from Saddam's scheme; among its targets, oil giants Yukos and Lukoil and ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. (FP)