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Iraq: U.S. Announces First Conviction In Oil-For-Food Probe

New York, 19 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Justice Department has announced the first conviction in connection with its investigation into abuses of the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq.

Samir Vincent, an Iraqi-American businessman, pleaded guilty in federal U.S. court to charges that he received payments from Saddam Hussein's regime for his illegal efforts at both trying to lift sanctions and undermining the UN's humanitarian program in Iraq. He is cooperating with U.S. authorities seeking to determine who violated U.S. laws in the scandalized UN program. United Nations audits released earlier this month indicated widespread mismanagement and waste by UN officials.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says Samir Vincent was one of Saddam Hussein's "accomplices" in corrupting and weakening the United Nation's oil-for-food program in Iraq.

Ashcroft said yesterday that Vincent has admitted to lobbying officials of the U.S. government and the UN to repeal the sanctions. But he also became involved, according to Ashcroft, in seeking early support for the oil-for-food program, which Hussein defrauded of billions of dollars.

"In February of 1996, Vincent traveled to Baghdad and drafted agreements with Iraqi government officials that guaranteed millions of dollars of compensation for Vincent and others if they were able to get the oil-for-food program implemented," Ashcroft said.

Vincent, a naturalized American, pleaded guilty yesterday in U.S. federal court in New York to conspiring and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, violating economic sanctions, and income-tax fraud violations.

Ashcroft told a Washington news conference that Vincent received allocations of oil produced under the UN program as payment for services. "Between 1996 and 2003, Vincent has admitted to receiving allocations for more than 9 million barrels of oil, the rights to which he sold for millions of dollars," Ashcroft said.

U.S. Attorney David Kelley said that Vincent received between $3 million and $5 million from his oil allocation and payments from Hussein's regime.

Vincent faces up to 28 years in prison but is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department's ongoing investigation into fraud in the UN program.

That program was set up in 1996 to allow Iraq to sell oil to purchase humanitarian goods under UN sanctions. The UN Security Council gave the Iraqi government the power to select which entities and individuals it would sell oil to. Investigators said this provided Baghdad with enormous leverage to extract kickbacks on oil sales.
Vincent received between $3 million and $5 million from his oil allocation and payments from Hussein's regime.

Widespread charges of abuse prompted the UN to appoint an independent commission last year, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to mount an inquiry. He is due to issue his first major report in a few weeks, but said earlier this month that audits of the program indicate systemic mismanagement by the United Nations.

A U.S. senator leading one of the U.S. congressional inquiries, Norm Coleman (Minnesota, Republican), has called for the resignation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The U.S. government has distanced itself from that call and expressed support for Annan.

Incoming U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during her Senate confirmation hearing yesterday that it is important to probe the extent of corruption in the UN program. "We've opened up the Iraq Survey Group's files, in effect, to people," Rice said. "We've got to get to the bottom of what happened here, and those who were responsible, I think, should be held accountable."

The Iraq Survey Group, led by Charles Duelfer, a former UN arms inspector, has concluded that Hussein earned $1.5 billion through kickbacks from contracts for goods purchased through the oil-for-food program. It said Hussein reaped nearly $8 billion more through selling oil outside the program to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.