The UN must investigate the scandals of its oil-for-food programme in Iraq

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The eruption of the UN oil-for-food scandal in Iraq couldn't have come at a worse time for the organisation, just as it is taking on the task of choosing the Iraqi council that will take over from the occupying forces on 30 June. The UN's reputation is already tarnished among Iraqis, because of its administration of the eight-year $40bn programme. Now its integrity, as well as its competence, is under fire.

The eruption of the UN oil-for-food scandal in Iraq couldn't have come at a worse time for the organisation, just as it is taking on the task of choosing the Iraqi council that will take over from the occupying forces on 30 June. The UN's reputation is already tarnished among Iraqis, because of its administration of the eight-year $40bn programme. Now its integrity, as well as its competence, is under fire.

Which is why, of course, the Republicans in the US Congress are so keen to pursue the matter through no less than three separate inquiries in the Senate and House of Representatives. The oil-for-food programme was a Clinton era policy and is grist to the Republican mill in an election year. It also helps to explain the energy with which the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, has gathered the documents providing "evidence" of the alleged corruption in the programme. Chalabi, the favoured Iraqi politician of the US Defence Department, stands to lose most by the 30 June handover of authority from the US-appointed Governing Council to a council picked by the UN.

The political nature of the US inquiries and the provenance of some of the documents should warn outsiders to hold their judgement until the UN has had time to conduct its own investigation (which Kofi Annan has now ordered), and for the inquiry now being conducted by Claude Hankes-Drielsma for the Iraqi Governing Council to finish its work. The presence of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress on the Governing Council and in supplying it with information is not encouraging. It was the INC that supplied many of the now-discredited interviews which gave credence to the original stories of Saddam Hussein's continuing programme of weapons of mass destruction.

While that should make outsiders reserve judgement, particularly about the individuals named in lists of those doing deals with Saddam leaked to the Iraqi press, it should not be a reason for avoiding the fullest investigation of the administration and corruption involved in the oil-for-food programme. Even the most sympathetic observers found that programme an open avenue for bribery and manipulation, poorly supervised and subject to abuse by both the Iraqi government and the purchasers of oil at favoured prices.

Not all the blame for this can be laid at the UN's door. The programme itself was a flawed one. Introduced to ameliorate the effects of sanctions on the Iraqis, it enabled the Iraqis to sell limited amounts of oil in exchange for money which was then deposited in UN-controlled accounts to be spent on food and medicines for Saddam's sanctions-suffering people. The object was to prevent Saddam using the money to buy arms. And in that it seems to have been reasonably successful. But by allowing the Baathist regime to choose the middlemen to whom it would sell oil and buy food, it allowed Saddam to reach agreements with a host of individuals and companies that could pay him kick-backs for getting cheap oil.

The sums involved in this bribery amounted to many billions. Mr Hankes-Drielsma suggests as much as $10bn, with the chief culprits being the French and the Russians. That may be, although it should be added that it is convenient for the Republican cause in Washington that it should be so, while the individuals have had no opportunity to clear their name. Nor has the official in charge of the UN.

Speed is thus essential for the UN to conduct its own inquiry. It also makes it all the more essential that it shows a willingness to tackle its endemic problems of administration and financial control. Its other lesson may be less welcome for the Americans and British, who now need the UN to make the 30 June handover work. After the first Gulf War, the UN was used by the victors to make sense of a difficult and contradictory policy. Now the occupation forces want it to perform the same task of making credible a contradictory position in which they remain as the chief providers of security while handing over nominal control to the Iraqis. For its own sake, as well as the Iraqis', the UN needs to proceed with caution and independence.

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