Drug firms assist inquiry into allegations of Iraqi bribes

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The Independent Online

Pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca have confirmed that they have been asked to hand over documents to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) as part of its investigation into bribes allegedly paid to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime during the UN's oil-for-food programme in the 1990s.

The SFO is investigating possible breaches of the sanctions rules. The investigation was triggered by a damning United Nations report which listed more than 2,200 companies worldwide that may have been linked to bribery or "kickbacks" to Iraqi Baathist officials. GSK and AstraZeneca have denied any wrongdoing and said they were co-operating fully with the SFO.

In a statement, GSK said: "GSK does not believe that its employees or its agents in Iraq knowingly engaged in wrongdoing regarding the oil for food programme.

"In fact GSK went to considerable lengths to co-operate with the UK Government authorities responsible for the UK administration of the programme, and to impose anti-corruption measures when dealing with intermediaries in Iraq at a time when the environment was extremely volatile and difficult.

"GSK is co-operating fully and freely with the enquiries being made by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the SFO. Given that the investigations are continuing we do not consider it appropriate to comment further at this stage."

Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said in his 2005 report for the UN on the success of the sanctions that it had become corrupt as Saddam Hussein's regime demanded payments from foreign companies in return for lucrative contracts.

The SFO investigation, which could take years and is expected to cost around 22m, has been predicted to become one of the biggest undertaken by the agency.

An AstraZeneca spokeswoman said: "AstraZeneca has received a request from the Serious Fraud Office for documents as part of its review of the oil for food programme in Iraq. The company will be providing the documentation."

AstraZeneca has previously said it sent a consignment of medicines originally requested by Saddam Hussein's government under the programme.

The company said most of the consignment was delivered after US and UK coalition forces had taken control of the country and was sent with all relevant UN permissions and UK Government Department of Trade and Industry export licences.

The Serious Fraud Office announced in February that it had opened a formal investigation "into issues relating to the breaches of the embargo [against Iraq]".