Anti-war nations 'took bribes' before war began

Investigation launched into claims that Saddam Hussein used oil to win support around the world
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Claims that dozens of politicians, including some from prominent anti-war countries such as France, had taken bribes to support Saddam Hussein are to be investigated by the Iraqi authorities. The US-backed Iraqi Governing Council decided to check after an independent Baghdad newspaper, al-Mada, published a list which it said was based on oil ministry documents.

The 46 individuals, companies and organisations inside and outside Iraq were given millions of barrels of oil, the documents show. Thousands of papers were looted from the State Oil Marketing Organisation after Baghdad fell to US forces on 9 April.

"I think the list is true," Naseer Chaderji, a Governing Council member, said. "I will demand an investigation. These people must be prosecuted." Rumours had circulated for months that documents implicating senior French individuals were about to surface. Such evidence would undermine the French position before the war when President Jacques Chirac staked out the moral high ground in opposing the invasion.

A senior Bush administration official said Washington was aware of the reports but refused further comment. Another US source said that incriminating oil ministry documents allegedly implicating France concerned the two-year period before the war, when the UN sanctions were in danger of collapse.

French diplomats have dismissed any suggestion that their foreign policy was influenced by payments from Saddam. The French have always insisted their anti-war stance did not mean support for Saddam. But British diplomats suspected France's steadfast opposition to the war was driven by something other than the reasons stated by President Chirac. "Oil runs thicker than blood," is how one former ambassador put his suspicions about the French motives for opposing action against Saddam.

The list quoted by al-Mada included members of Arab ruling families, religious organisations, politicians and political parties from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Sudan, China, Austria, France and other countries. But no names were available last night.

Organisations named include the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Communist Party, India's Congress Party and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The United States and Britain launched the war on Iraq on 19 March, 2003 without UN approval after tense negotiations in the Security Council collapsed in the face of a veto threat from France. France's relations with Britain and the US deteriorated to their worst point in decades over the Iraq rift, and have yet to heal.

China, another Security Council permanent member with veto power which is named by al-Mada, was also opposed to the Iraq invasion. Arab countries, in addition to France, had warned of the risk of instability spreading throughout the Middle East as a result of the war. Turkey, a Nato member, was a crucial player because of the opposition to the war among its Muslim majority population. There is the possibility that the documents in al-Mada are forgeries. At present there is almost a war of documents under way as Iraqis come to the realisation that they could be used as blackmail or as a settling of scores. And the leak of the documents could be a manipulation by the US-backed authorities in Iraq to discredit France.

The Iraqi authorities will be keen to interview prominent Iraqi officials held by the Coalition Provisional Authority who could shed light on illegal payments. Those officials include the former oil minister, Amer Mohammed Rashid. Assem Jihad, an oil ministry spokesman, said the documents stolen from his ministry may prove Saddam used bribery to gain support. "Anyone stealing Iraqi wealth will be prosecuted," he said.

Although under sanctions from the 1990 invasion of Kuwait until after the second Gulf War, the Iraqi government could sell oil under a UN agreement that proceeds from the oil sales be used to buy food, medicine and basic supplies.

Some international companies selling goods to Iraq may have paid commissions to Iraqi officials that were deposited in Arab banks in exchange for contracts under the oil for food deal. A paper trail should exist.

Saddam smuggled out billions of dollars worth of oil through Turkey, a Syrian pipeline and Iranian coastal waters. The Americans turned a blind eye to the smuggling via Turkey, because they needed to keep their Nato ally on board.