Saddam may have bribed head of UN Oil-for-Food programme

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The Independent US

Investigators are looking into allegations that three UN officials took multi-million dollar bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime while overseeing the Oil-for-Food programme, it was revealed yesterday.

Investigators are looking into allegations that three UN officials took multi-million dollar bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime while overseeing the Oil-for-Food programme, it was revealed yesterday.

Benon Sevan, the Cypriot-born UN undersecretary general who ran the programme for six years, is one of those accused of taking kickbacks. Mr Sevan, who has denied any wrongdoing, has submitted his retirement papers and is on holiday in Australia.

Establishing an independent committee to look into the allegations, the secretary general, Kofi Annan, said yesterday: "These are serious allegations, which we take seriously and this is why we put together a very serious group to investigate it. I want to get to the truth and I want to get to the bottom of this so I am happy they are taking on this assignment."

In addition to the independent inquiry headed by former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Paul Volcker, the US Congress is also investigating the allegations.

The controversial Oil-for-Food programme was set up in 1996 with the aim of helping Iraqis who were suffering because of UN sanctions imposed after the 1990-91 Gulf War. The scheme allowed Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil, supposedly under tight UN supervision, to finance the purchase of food and humanitarian goods.

The Iraqi government was able to decide on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy oil. The programme, which suffered from accusations of corruption, was ended last November.

The most serious allegations of corruption surfaced in January when an independent Iraqi newspaper, Al-Mada, published a list of 270 former government officials, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from the oil sales. Last month, the US General Accounting Office - Congress' investigative arm - estimated that the Iraqi government pocketed $5.7bn (£3.2bn) smuggling oil to its neighbours and $4.4bn by extracting illicit surcharges and kickbacks on otherwise legitimate contracts

ABC Television in the US reported yesterday that Mr Sevan and others were being investigated. It said a letter to former Iraqi oil minister Amer Mohammed Rasheed mentioned Mr Sevan. Under the heading "Quantity of Oil Allocated and Given to Mr Benon Sevan", the letter lists 7.3 million barrels of oil as the "quantity executed". If true this amount would have generated of profit of $3.5m.

Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a British adviser to the Iraq Governing Council, who yesterday testified before the Congressional inquiry, said: "Somebody who is running the Oil-for-Food programme for the United Nations should not be receiving any benefit of any kind from a rogue dictator who was perpetuating terror in his country."

In an interview with ABC News last year, Mr Sevan denied any wrongdoing. "Well, I can tell you there have been no allegations about me. Maybe you can try to dig it out," he said.

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