Iraq: British MP Rebukes U.S. Panel As Oil-for-Food Inquiry Widens
By Robert McMahon
British parliamentarian George Galloway has angrily rejected accusations he helped Saddam Hussein exploit the UN oil-for-food program. Galloway also used his appearance before a U.S. Senate panel investigating abuses of the program to criticize the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the impact on Iraqi civilians of UN sanctions. He was the first of several prominent figures to address in person charges of participating in an elaborate kickback scheme. The widening investigation has also brought greater scrutiny of U.S. government actions that appeared to permit some revenue to flow to Saddam despite the sanctions.
United Nations, 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate panel's case against George Galloway and other prominent officials is tied to documents from Iraqi oil officials showing oil was allocated to those who defended Saddam's regime.
A legal counsel to the Senate subcommittee on investigations, Mark Greenblatt, told senators yesterday that Galloway was able to hide millions of barrels in allocations through a charity for a young Iraqi cancer victim.
Greenblatt cited testimony from a former top aide to Saddam, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, and other former Iraqi officials.
"Ramadan confirmed that Galloway was rendered allocations, quote, 'because of his opinions about Iraq, he wants to lift embargoes on Iraq.' Other regime officials confirmed that Galloway received allocations under the oil-for-food program," Greenblatt said.
The subcommittee, chaired by Republican Senator Norm Coleman, also accused Galloway of directing more than 300,000 dollars of oil surcharge payments back to Saddam's government.
But Galloway, speaking in a Senate chamber in Washington, dismissed the charges as "utterly preposterous."
"I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader, and neither has anyone on my behalf," Galloway said. "I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf."
Galloway, a former Labour Party member who set up his own Respect Party, directed scorn at Coleman and other lawmakers who have supported the oil-for-food inquiry. He called it an attempt to divert attention from the U.S. government's own errors and abuses in Iraq.
"If the world had listened to Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to President Chirac, who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the antiwar movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today. Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens."
At least four U.S. Congressional committees are investigating alleged corruption in the UN oil-for-food program. Some critics say this is retribution for UN opposition to the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam. Coleman, a leading critic of the United Nations, has called on Secretary-General Annan to resign and has questioned whether a UN-commissioned investigation led by Paul Volcker is being too soft on Annan's alleged role in abuses.
The Associated Press reported that after yesterday's hearing, both Coleman and the panel's top member of the minority Democratic Party, Senator Carl Levin, questioned Galloway's credibility.
The Senate committee also has charged that the former French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, and Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovksy had received large oil allocations. Both have denied the allegations.
Overall, Russia received about one-third of the oil allocations under the oil-for-food program. Another Senate investigator, Steven Groves, told the panel of allocations given to the Foreign Ministry, the Unity Party and the head of the presidential council, Alexander Voloshin.
Citing a typical bribe, Groves said the Iraqi regime rewarded Russia in the spring of 2001 for opposing a new attempt to tighten sanctions.
"There was going to be a resolution floated to institute smart sanctions, where they were going to tighten up the sanctions and restrict border trade," Groves said. "And the Russian Federation made it known that if any such resolution was introduced they would veto it. The word got back to the Hussein regime and they specifically gave rewards to the Federation both in oil allocations and on the humanitarian contracts because of that action."
Russia's foreign ministry has criticized the Senate inquiry as unbalanced and said it is cooperating with the Volcker-led investigation.
The committee's investigation also renewed concern about lax U.S. oversight of the sanctions against Iraq. The Senate panel's investigators found that of $228 million in illegal oil surcharges paid to Iraq, more than half was paid on oil sold to U.S. companies. A U.S. oil company -- Houston-based Bayoil -- was said to be heavily involved in the scheme.
Levin accused the U.S. government of laxity in pursuing concerns about Bayoil. He also noted the government's willingness to permit Iraq to smuggle about $8 billion in oil to Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
He noted one instance just before the war in 2003 when Jordanian tankers were allowed to transport Iraqi oil through a naval quarantine.
"As part of that $8 billion, we even permitted Jordanian chartered ships to load oil illegally and gave them safe passage to the Persian Gulf past the Maritime Interdiction Force we were commanding to stop illegal oil ships," Levin said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday defended the shipments to Jordan and cited attempts to stop the flow of oil to Syria. He did not recall whether the shipments to Turkey were "acknowledged and reported."
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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