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Annan: UN-Iraq oil-for-food faces probe
Updated: 2004-03-20 14:51

Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced plans Friday for an independent commission to investigate alleged corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program.

Annan revealed his decision to go beyond a current internal U.N. probe Friday night in a letter to the Security Council.

The world organization has been hit with allegations that U.N. staff may have reaped millions of dollars from the oil-for-food program that helped Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions.

U.S. congressional investigators have also looked into the program, charging this week that Saddam Hussein's government smuggled oil, added surcharges and collected kickbacks to rake in $10.1 billion in violation of the United Nations' oil-for-food program.

"Hopefully the U.N. can build upon our work in looking at the books," said Jeff Nelligan, spokesman for the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The U.N. chief said in the letter he wants "an independent, high-level inquiry to investigate the allegations relating to the administration and management of the program, including allegations of fraud and corruption."

Annan's letter didn't elaborate on how an independent probe would be handled. He said he would address this in a further letter.

Annan told journalists earlier Friday that he had been talking with Security Council members about the scope of the probe and the need for international cooperation.

"I think we need to have an independent investigation, an investigation that can be as broad as possible to look into all these allegations which have been made and get to the bottom of this because I don't think we need to have our reputation impugned," Annan said.

Annan indicated he didn't need security council approval for the probe, but said he wanted its support.

The oil-for-food program was established by the U.N. Security Council in December 1996 to help the Iraqi population cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The program, which ended in November, allowed the former Iraqi regime to sell unlimited quantities of oil, provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War.

Annan's decision followed publication in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada of a list of about 270 former Cabinet officials, legislators, political activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales.

The United Nations has already sent two letters to the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition requesting evidence of corruption in the program the latest a week ago.

In late January, the Governing Council asked the country's Oil Ministry to gather information on allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime bribed prominent foreigners with oil money to back his government.

U.N. officials have said that they would not comment on the U.S. figure of $10.1 billion by congressional investigators unless there was "a comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the oil-for-food program, not just U.N. personnel, but what governments and companies did."

During the program, Saddam's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil. The Security Council committee monitoring sanctions checked the contracts, primarily for dual-use items that could be used to make weapons.

"We certainly knew there was skimming by Saddam and his cronies but with regard to U.N. officials, no," a U.S. official told The Associated Press Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We certainly hope there are no U.N. officials involved, but if there are some involved, then they should be held accountable."

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