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Iraq: UN Panel Says Oil-For-Food Probe To Take Much Longer Than Expected

UN Security Council (file photo) The head of an independent panel investigating corruption in the United Nations' "oil-for-food" program for Iraq says it may take another year to produce its main findings. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, told reporters it is too early to make any conclusions about abuses of the program because of the vast amount of data his team must sort through. Volcker also rejected charges that UN officials were trying to block the investigation and said he has received full cooperation from Iraqi officials.

United Nations, 10 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- After more than three months of work, the UN-appointed body investigating the Iraqi "oil-for-food" program says it has barely begun to assess the evidence it has assembled.

The head of the investigative panel, Paul Volcker, on 9 August said the vast scale of the program, which ran from 1996 to 2003, required more time for forensic accountants and other experts to work.

Volcker initially estimated findings on alleged UN abuses could be made toward the end of this year. But he now says the massive number of documents to review -- more than 15 million -- and the interviewing of parties involved would likely take until the middle of next year.

The panel, he said, will need the time to make a proper assessment of the UN's role. "We aim to make the definitive report on the operation of the oil-for-food program by the United Nations and we really believe that we have the mandate and the ability and the authority to produce that report," he said.
"This is going to become a rather crowded and, I suspect, somewhat confused field." - Volcker

Volcker asserted the primacy of the UN investigation among competing inquiries but he said his panel is so far cooperating with others looking into the oil-for-food program.

The investigatory arm of the U.S. Congress has estimated that the former Iraqi regime siphoned about $10 billion from the oil-for-food program.

Bodies now investigating the alleged abuses, in addition to the UN, include the U.S. Congress, U.S. Justice Department, and the interim Iraqi government. A British engineering services firm, Weir Group, said last month it was also conducting an internal probe after it found irregularities in its activities related to the program.

Volcker said his team was most interested in determining the UN's responsibility for abuses in the program. But he said it would be necessary for the panel to study the flow of money in all directions. "This is going to become a rather crowded and, I suspect, somewhat confused field," he said. "But it is an area which we will necessarily have to be involved with, as part of our investigation of the UN itself -- and then, beyond that, what went on outside the UN."

Volcker said he did not detect any resistance to a full investigation at senior levels of the UN, as alleged by some U.S. critics. He said his team would be examining the operations of a wide range of UN actors in Iraq's humanitarian program.

"This program was under the surveillance and oversight of the Security Council -- which is not the Secretariat, it's the Security Council -- and the actual administration in Iraq was largely under all these affiliated UN agencies, not the Secretariat here in New York, so you have to keep those distinctions in mind," Volcker said.

The oil-for-food program was set up to provide humanitarian goods to Iraqis under comprehensive UN Security Council sanctions stemming from the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It was the largest humanitarian program in UN history. In the course of the program, oil was sold to nearly 250 companies incorporated in 61 countries. On the humanitarian side, there were about 3,500 vendors of goods for the non-Kurdish part of Iraq.

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