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Iraq: U.S. Diplomat Says Russia, France, China Resisted Reforming Oil Program

Washington, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. diplomat said yesterday that Russia, France, and China delayed efforts by the UN Security Council to end abuses that helped former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein benefit from the oil-for-food program.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the three countries resisted efforts to correct improprieties in oil pricing that delivered kickbacks to Hussein. Western diplomats on the council had cited resistance from Russia, France, and China for several years, but always speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The credibility of the United Nations in attempting to referee, supervise, or help to transform Iraq in this situation is really at stake." -- Senator Richard Lugar
Negroponte said U.S. and British diplomats on the council finally succeeded in 2001 to initiate a retroactive pricing system in which oil would be exported first and the price set later, reducing the chance for corruption. The program ran from 1997 to the start of the war in Iraq one year ago.

The ambassador said Russia, France, and China may have been driven by commercial considerations to protect companies involved in oil deals. All three states also had abstained from the 1999 resolution revamping the sanctions regime against Hussein.

Security Council members have agreed to cooperate with an investigation launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan into the oil-for-food program. Annan is expected to name a panel of investigators soon.

"As you know, we joined our fellow Security Council members on 31 March in welcoming this expanded investigation and pledging our full cooperation," Negroponte said. "We must not forget that, allegations aside, it is the Iraqi people who would have been most hurt by any wrongdoing. It is for them most of all that we must take this responsibility very seriously and we will urge all UN member states to do the same." Negroponte added that the oil-for-food program "was created to alleviate the hardships faced by the Iraqi people, hardships caused by Saddam Hussein's regime's refusal to comply with its obligations and the resulting comprehensive, multilateral sanctions regime imposed by the Security Council on Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990."

U.S. legislators have also begun to scrutinize the program after U.S. officials estimated that Hussein earned $10 billion illicitly from oil sales despite UN sanctions.

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), said the investigations come at a key time when the UN is poised to help guide the political transition of Iraq. He said the UN's role in any abuses of the Iraqi humanitarian program must be brought to light.

"The credibility of the United Nations in attempting to referee, supervise, or help to transform Iraq in this situation is really at stake," Lugar said. "And it's important to the United States, given the sacrifices we have made, that the institution be sound." He stressed the importance that "the United Nations show vigorously its abilities, unearth [any improprieties], and...make known, really, what the situation is."

Other senators on the panel raised questions about whether UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would properly investigate improprieties in the program, the largest of its kind in history. The head of the program, Benon Sevan, has been named by an Iraqi newspaper as one of a long list of people who profited from abuses of the system. Sevan has repeatedly denied this, pointing to numerous audits.

Negroponte noted that after a critical investigation of UN security preparations in Iraq last year, Annan took action against high-ranking UN staff.