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Probe Iraq Oil-For-Food Programme

Probe Iraq Oil-For-Food Programme But Don't Forget Its Successes - UN Official

With the United Nations poised to play a key role in Iraq's transition to sovereignty, critics of the world body are seizing on unsubstantiated allegations regarding the Oil-for-Food relief effort before a high-level panel appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan has had a chance to investigate the matter, according to a senior UN official.

In an opinion piece published Friday by The Wall Street Journal, UN Communications Director Edward Mortimer emphasized that Mr. Annan takes the charges surrounding the programme "very seriously" and for that reason selected Paul Volcker, former head of the United States Federal Reserve Board, to head the inquiry. Mr. Volcker will be supported by Richard Goldstone, who played a key role in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Mark Pieth, one of the world's leading experts on investigating bribery and money-laundering.

"All three have the highest reputation for integrity, expertise and an ability to get at the truth," Mr. Mortimer noted.

The panel will investigate not only actions by UN officials but also those of agents and contractors who worked in connection with the Oil-for-Food programme. Experts will have access to all UN documents and personnel, while Mr. Annan has promised to take action against any staff members found guilty of wrongdoing.

"No one should prejudge the panel's findings," Mr. Mortimer stressed. He also pointed out that some figures being quoted in connection with the programme are "clearly wrong." As an example, noted that contrary to published reports, Oil-for-Food was not "a $100 billion-plus programme," since Iraqi oil sales totalled $64.2 billion in the seven years of its life.

An estimate by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) that the former Iraqi regime took $10.1 billion in illegal revenues from the programme "is misleadingly phrased," Mr. Mortimer said. More than half that figure - $5.7 billion - relates to oil smuggled out of Iraq in violation of UN sanctions. "This had been going on for years before the programme was established, and was quite unconnected with it," he pointed out. UN officials had neither the mandate nor the capacity to police smuggling, which was dealt with by a multinational force and relevant national authorities.

The remaining $4.4 billion resulted partly from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein underpricing oil and demanding a secret premium from purchasers. When the UN's oil overseers got wind of this practice in 2000, they alerted the Security Council, which agreed on a "retroactive pricing" scheme that reduced the scope for illicit premiums.

Mr. Hussein was also allegedly collecting kickbacks from companies overpricing humanitarian relief goods. "This abuse was much harder for UN officials to detect," Mr. Mortimer said, adding that in some cases, they did query the prices and, if no satisfactory answer was given, reported their concerns to the Security Council's sanctions committee, which gave final approval to all contracts.

Overall, he emphasized that the programme provided a basic food ration for all 27 million Iraqis. From 1996 to 2001, the average Iraqi's daily food intake increased from 1,200 to 2,200 calories per day. Malnutrition among Iraqi children was cut by half during the life of the programme, as were deaths of children under five in the centre and south of the country. During the same period, polio was completely eradicated.

"The Oil-for-Food programme was an effort to spare ordinary Iraqis some of the bitter hardships that their leaders had brought upon them," Mr. Mortimer said. "No doubt it could have been better designed, and better implemented, but in its basic mission, it succeeded."

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