Kofi Probes Saddam Oil ‘Bribes’ for U.N.
Niles Lathem, N. Y. Post, Mar. 17
WASHINGTON — An embarrassed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan confirmed yesterday he has ordered a probe into allegations that top U.N. officials were getting payoffs from Saddam Hussein under the controversial Iraqi oil-for-food program before the war.
At a press conference at U.N. headquarters yesterday in New York, Annan yielded to intense international pressure to address allegations of a gigantic swindle in which Saddam is said to have handed out more than $2 billion in sweetheart oil deals to U.N. diplomats and friendly politicians.
Saddam is believed to have pocketed $4.7 billion in kickbacks for himself through the U.N.-run program designed to help feed the Iraqi people during international economic sanctions.
Annan said the director of the U.N.’s Office of Oversight Services “has started the investigation to see how far he can go and what other measures need to be taken” — but added that further approval of the U.N. Security Council may be needed to launch a full-blown inquiry.
Critics charged that Annan’s response to revelations that the oil-for-food program was mismanaged and rife with corruption has been tepid at best and that an outside investigation — possibly by Congress — is needed.
“It looks to me like the U.N is stonewalling and dragging its feet. There’s a real credibility problem here that could really hurt the U.N. as an institution,” said Nile Gardiner, a U.N. expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Iraq’s governing council has already hired the accounting firm KPMG and a German law firm to review thousands of documents found in the Iraqi Oil Ministry and intelligence services that provide detailed information about Saddam’s complex bribery scheme.
At the center of the scandal is Benon Sevan, a U.N. assistant secretary-general, who was appointed to administer the oil-for-food program in 1997.
Sevan’s name appeared on a list of 270 alleged bribe-takers that was recovered from Iraq’s Oil Ministry and published in a Baghdad newspaper in January.
Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a British businessman and adviser to Iraq’s Governing Council, told The Post he has seen Iraqi documents indicating that vouchers for the sale of more than 7 million barrels of Iraqi oil were steered to a Panamanian-registered company in which Sevan had a connection.
Family members of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali are also officers of the company, Hankes-Drielsma said.
The vouchers allegedly given to Sevan and other politicians, businessmen and political parties on the list enabled them to serve as middlemen and flip the contract to another oil company, making between 10 cents and 60 cents profit on each barrel of oil, Hankes-Drielsma said.
Sevan has vehemently denied he took bribes from Saddam. The U.N. says he is now on vacation until the end of next month, when he is due to retire.
“The question facing this inquiry is that if Sevan took the oil, why and for what?” said another official advising Iraq’s Governing Council.
“If he is presiding over a program where there are rampant kickbacks and payoffs, were he and other U.N. officials bribed to look the other way?” the official added.
Hankes-Drielsma said he wrote Annan a letter back in December warning that the oil-for-food program could become “one of the world’s most disgraceful scams.”
In a telephone interview, he also said he has seen documents indicating that to buy oil from Iraq, each company had to add 10 percent to the value of the deal as a kickback to Saddam.
Iraq sold $47 billion worth of oil under this program, giving Saddam a $4.7 billion personal profit.
Hankes-Drielsma also said that foreign companies sold food to Iraq under the program “that was unfit for human consumption,” as well as outdated medicine.
And he said the program is so mismanaged there are “several hundred million dollars” from the program sitting in three banks in Jordan. Someone is withdrawing money from these accounts. But nobody knows who.”