Galloway fights corner on accuser's home patch

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George Galloway had warned he was coming to Washington to make a spirited defence of his reputation, and even before entering the US Senate he made sure to deliver one or two decent punches.

George Galloway had warned he was coming to Washington to make a spirited defence of his reputation, and even before entering the US Senate he made sure to deliver one or two decent punches.

Standing on the corner of Constitution and 3rd, a fresh spring breeze at his heels and a pack of television cameras in his sights, he quickly provided a taste of what was about to come.

"I am determined now that I am here, to be not the accused but the accuser. These people are involved in the mother of all smoke screens," he declared, quickly getting into his stride.

Within a moment he had found his rhythm and his well-practised descriptive powers were flowing. The people he was about to confront were "neo-cons", "pro-Israel", "pro-war". They were trying to "distract" attention from an illegal war. Their so-called "evidence" amounted to nothing more than a "schoolboy dossier". Before turning heel and marching into the committee room ready to deliver a tongue-lashing, he added one more verbal blast for good measure. "Lickspittle."

Mr Galloway, a former Labour MP, a constant friend of often unpopular causes and the newly elected Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, had come to Capitol Hill at the invitation of a Senate committee that had accused him of benefiting from oil allocations meted out by Saddam Hussein's regime. In a violation of the UN oil-for-food programme, he had been given allocations for 20 million barrels of oil, alleged the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations, because of his opposition to UN sanctions and his support of Saddam's regime. While the committee admitted it had no physical proof that Mr Galloway had "cashed" the allocations, it said the implications were clear. Furthermore, it said there was evidence Mr Galloway had used the foundation he established to help a four-year-old Iraqi girl suffering from leukaemia to conceal the payment of at least one allocation.

Nonsense, declared Mr Galloway. The accusations made last week were not new, he said, and he had already won a libel action against The Daily Telegraph which had made similar claims. He was ready to take up the invitation of the committee chairman, Senator Norm Coleman, to fly to the US and give evidence to the committee. He would let them have it with both barrels.

If Mr Galloway was ready for a showdown by the time he walked into the airy and wood-panelled Room 106 of the Senate's Dirksen building yesterday, he was going to have to cool his heels for a while. He was not the first witness and for almost two hours he listened as officials outlined various accusations directed not just at him and the former French foreign minister Charles Pasqua, but also against the Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Texas company that had traded oil with Iraq, as well as the US administration of George Bush for turning a blind eye to such sanction-busting.

He finally took the witnesses table, in front of a horseshoe bench where the committee sat, at 11.25am. How would he address the committee? Would he be polite or scathing, friendly or fearsome? Would he fall back on that old standby - Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability - a line he infamously delivered to Saddam in 1994 and over which he claims he is repeatedly quoted out of context? In the end Mr Galloway settled for delivering a stern and steadfast defence, highlighting the lack of hard evidence against him and claiming that the real criminals were the British and US governments, which had overseen a sanctions regime against Iraq that he said had led to the deaths of 1 million Iraqi children.

"Mr Chairman, I am not now, nor have I ever been an oil trader and neither has anyone been on my behalf," he said. "I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf." He tore into Mr Coleman's 22-page report, saying that to describe it as containing "errors" was being polite. He said he had met Saddam not on "many" occasions, as it alleged, but twice. "As a matter of fact I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times that [US Defence Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns." To Mr Coleman, he added: "I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice."

Mr Galloway admitted that his associate Fawaz Zureikat, who was chairman of the Mariam Appeal foundation, had been involved in trade dealings with the Iraqi regime. He admitted that Mr Zureikat had provided the foundation with £370,000 but said he never asked where the money came from.

Mr Coleman, the freshman senator from Minnesota, had probably never encountered anyone like Mr Galloway. Most witnesses who appear before such committees are either fawning or deferential. Mr Galloway was neither.

Rather he questioned the senators' moral right to be questioning him, someone who had "protested [against Saddam's regime] outside the Iraqi embassy". Neither were US politicians who raised funds from all manner of sources, he said, in any position to question how he funded the Mariam Appeal. Their sources, he continued, were former Iraqi officials now imprisoned in Abu Ghraib jail and documents provided to them by the "convicted fraudster", Ahmed Chalabi.

"You have nothing on me, Senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Iraq," he said. "What counts is not the names on the paper. What counts is where's the money, senator? Who paid me money, senator? Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars? The answer to that is nobody and if you had anybody who paid me a penny you would have produced them here today."

Mr Galloway did not have it all his own way. While he clearly had the better of Mr Coleman, who seemed to adopt an awkward, nervous smile for most of the morning, the committee's deputy chairman, Senator Carl Levin, appeared less intimidated. And in terms of the knock-about contest that was taking place, he landed his own blow when pointing out that he had not, as the British MP alleged, voted for the war in Iraq.

Overall, however, it would have to be an odd judge who did not score this transatlantic clash in Mr Galloway's favour. Not only did he use the hearing as an opportunity to promote his anti-war stance, but he highlighted the committee's lack of hard evidence to back up the claims it had made against him. In the arena of public opinion where he is trying to defend himself against those allegations, that must have counted for something.

"I'd rather not be here," he said. "But I was determined to be here and to be heard."

What light did hearing shed on murky affair?

Why was George Galloway in Washington yesterday?

Mr Galloway was appearing before a US Senate sub-committee to face questioning over his alleged involvement in the long-running UN oil-for-food programme scandal.

Last week, the Senate's Permanent Sub-committee on Investigations claimed evidence showed that the Respect MP had been rewarded with oil allocations by Saddam's regime, appearing to use a children's leukaemia charity to conceal kickback payments associated with at least one allocation.

The report claims that Mr Galloway received allocations worth 20 million barrels from 2000 to 2003 and that Saddam made more than $300,000 in surcharges on allocations involving him.

What did we learn from the Senate hearing?

The chairman of the committee, the Republican Norm Coleman, focused particularly on the MP's relationship with a Jordanian businessman, Fawaz Zureikat of Aredio Petroleum, who was also the chairman of Mr Galloway's Mariam Appeal leukaemia charity.

The report claims that a document from the Iraqi oil ministry "indicated that the oil had been allocated to the Mariam Appeal".

Asked if he knew Mr Zureikat was involved in oil deals with Iraq, Mr Galloway said: "I can assure you Mr Zureikat never gave me a penny from an oil deal, a cake deal, a bread deal or from any other deal. He donated money to our campaign, which we publicly brandished on all our literature along with all other donors."

How did Mr Galloway generally respond to the grilling?

In typically pugnacious style he reprimanded the senators for failing to contact him and inform him of the charges before the report was released. He also denied having ever owned a company, as the report claims, under whose pretexts he could carry out illegal oil deals.

What were the previous oil-for-food allegations against him and how did he respond to them?

Allegations first emerged in January last year when an Iraqi newspaper published a list of 270 companies, organisations and individuals who allegedly profited from oil sales after being allocated vouchers by Saddam's regime. Mr Galloway's name, and that of Mr Zureikat, were on the list. The list was revisited, in greater detail, by the chief US weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, in September 2004. Mr Galloway was not on that list, but Mr Zureikat was.

Later last year Mr Galloway's name was again mentioned in connection with profiting from Saddam's regime when The Daily Telegraph reported he had received a salary from the government. The newspaper found documents in the Iraqi foreign ministry after the fall of Saddam that appeared to show Mr Galloway had received money from the government.

Mr Galloway strongly denied this and won the case after the judge ruled he had been seriously defamed. The Daily Telegraph was ordered to pay £150,000 in damages and about £1.2m in legal costs.

Given that he was not sub-poenaed by the Senate, why did Mr Galloway go?

Mr Galloway decided to exploit a golden opportunity to lambast the US government for its invasion of Iraq and promote himself as a leading anti-war politician. Reacting to the accusations of illicit financial transactions, he in turn accused the Senate of what he called the "illegal" toppling of Saddam's regime. Some of his harshest remarks concerned the US Senate's support for the war, remarking that Senator Coleman was "remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice".

Elizabeth Davies