Annan under fire from UN's former chief

Oil-for-food scandal Secretary-General's attempt to deflect criticism over corruption is undermined by his predecessor
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The Independent Online
Attempts by Kofi Annan to overcome a scandal that could threaten his position as UN Secretary General were dented yesterday by his predecessor.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was ousted after one term as UN chief because of US opposition to him, said he and Mr Annan were both responsible for the "oil-for-food" programme designed to ease the impact on Iraqis of sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Last week an interim report into allegations of corruption found the $67bn programme had been beset by political favouritism and had suffered from lax controls.

"I share the responsibility, but don't twist the whole operation," Mr Boutros-Ghali told BBC radio. "I regret the mismanagement and the scandal ... [but] the basis [of the programme] was decided by the Security Council, approved by the Security Council and the execution was done during the mandate of my successor."

Battling demands by some US conservatives that he resign, Mr Annan will this week announce immediate disciplinary measures against the two men most prominently implicated by independent investigators. The 240-page report said that the scheme's former director, Benon Sevan, had placed himself in "a conflict of interest" by soliciting oil allocations from the old Iraqi regime.

The report, compiled by an independent commission of inquiry led by the former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, similarly accused another senior official, Joseph Stephanedes, of subverting the bidding rules when the main contractors to run the programme were selected in 1996.

There is hope at UN headquarters that, while the tone of the report was harsh, particularly in regard to Mr Sevan, who has since retired, the absence of any other damning evidence against the body may allow some easing of the scandal, at least until the summer when Mr Volcker will release his final findings.

Mr Volcker made it clear that any money misdirected by corrupt activities within the programme was surely dwarfed by the amounts illicitly gained by Saddam Hussein through illegal smuggling of oil. "The major source of revenue to Iraq came from sanctions violations outside the oil-for- food programme," he said.

That Security Council members should share some responsibility for the lapses was explicitly underscored in Washington last week by Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He said that those members, including the US, "must also answer questions as to why they, too, did not pay greater scrutiny to this programme".

Mr Annan's supporters, seeking to fight back against the torrent of criticism from a vociferous minority in Congress, are pointing out that the sums in question are dwarfed by last week's disclosure that $9bn is unaccounted for from the Coalition Provisional Authority's tenure in Iraq, which lasted a little over one year.

Significantly, the harshest words were from Congressional members well known for their long-held distaste of the UN. They included Senator Norm Coleman, who even before the report's release was calling for Mr Annan's resignation, and Henry Hyde, a Republican member of the House of Representatives.

"I am reluctant to conclude that the UN is damaged beyond repair, but these revelations certainly point in that direction," Mr Hyde said after seeing the new report.