Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad's "Al-Mada" daily is only a few months old and virtually unknown outside of Iraq. But a story it published earlier this week is prompting a growing political furor in dozens of countries.
The newspaper published what it says is a list of contracts awarded by Iraq's State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) allocating large amounts of crude oil under Saddam Hussein's regime to some 270 foreign dignitaries and organizations. The allocations would have entitled the beneficiaries to collect a commission on the sale of the oil by middlemen.
The alleged awards -- part of a program of largesse said to total millions of barrels of oil between 1999 and 2002 -- came at a time when Hussein's regime was seeking international political support for ending UN sanctions and to counter threats of a U.S.-led military intervention. On the list are the names of leaders and opinion makers in more than 46 countries, among them cabinet officials, legislators, political activists, influential business figures, and journalists. Many of the countries are in the Mideast and Europe.
The director of "Al-Mada," Fakhri Karim, has refused to divulge how he obtained the documents from SOMO but has shown copies to foreign journalists in Baghdad. He also has said he has full confidence in the documents but that his newspaper has not sought to independently confirm their authenticity.
Still, if much remains uncertain about the source of the information, and no charges have yet been filed in any court, the publication of the list has received wide attention in places as disparate as Jordan, Belarus, Bulgaria, and France.
Many of those named immediately denied receiving anything from Hussein's regime. One is Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, who led the Bulgarian Socialist Party until 2001. The party is listed as the recipient in 1998 of 12 million barrels of oil. Parvanov says the report is false. "I'll be very explicit. During the time I was chairman of the Socialist Party, not a lev [Bulgarian currency], not a cent, not any other currency was received from foreign sources. The [party's] financing was transparent and legitimate," Parvanov said. The denial has not satisfied Bulgaria's right-wing opposition Union of Democratic Forces, which is calling on Parvanov to resign.
In France, former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua has voiced equal indignation. He, too, is alleged to have been allocated 12 million barrels of oil. Pasqua told the French daily "Le Monde," "I am not, and I have never been, a friend of Saddam Hussein." He added that it is "entirely possible that other people, especially politicians, may have received funds from the Ba'athist regime.... But don't look in my direction."
The list also includes the head of the UN's oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, who was defended by his organization this week (28 January). UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said: "We have seen the reports of these unconfirmed allegations. The oil-for-food program...has been satisfactorily audited many times, both internally and externally."
But the list of alleged recipients of Hussein's favors extends well beyond the realm of the internationally known to also include many figures of influence solely within their own countries. One is the head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Belarus, Syarhey Gaidukevich. His party is shown as being involved in an oil deal involving 6 million barrels, something he called "impossible." "It is nonsense. Our party never in its life made any commercial deals," he said. "It is simply impossible. I don't know what to say, if it happened, but it is simply impossible. It is as simple as that. I don't know how to describe a canard or something of this kind. It is simply funny."
As the denials cascade in, it is impossible for now to judge the legitimacy of either the charges or the defenses. The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council took a first step on 28 January toward looking into the allegations by asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.
The UN's oil-for-food program oversaw all legal Iraqi exports of oil prior to Washington's toppling of Hussein's regime in April. Ian Steele, a spokesman for the program, told our correspondent at the UN that it would have been difficult for Baghdad to use that channel to award oil deals to any parties other than bona fide oil companies.
Steele said the Security Council let Hussein's regime choose to whom it sold its oil but "subject to strict terms, conditions and inspections." "The framework in which the program operated was a very closely monitored and observed process," Steele said. "Anything that went on outside of that framework, the program was not in a position to know about."
The oil-for-food procedures included a requirement that any would-be recipient of an Iraqi oil contract first had to be vetted by the Trade Ministry of his own government. The Trade Ministry then passed on his request to purchase oil to the oil-for-food program in New York. The intended transparency of the oil-for-food program should make it easy for any investigations to determine whether the alleged awards of oil contracts by Hussein's regime came through legal, UN-approved channels.
But it is likely to be much more difficult to confirm if any special oil deals were awarded using oil smuggled out of the country. Hussein's regime conducted a thriving, sanctions-busting operation that illegally sold billions of dollars' worth of oil each year, with the proceeds going clandestinely into the hands of the regime and its favorites.
The alleged list of contract beneficiaries cited by "Al-Mada" includes members of Arab ruling families, religious groups, political parties, and other organizations in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Sudan, Russia, France, and China, among other countries.
(RFE/RL correspondents Robert McMahon in New York and Valentinas Mite in Prague contributed to this report.)