A scoop published by a Baghdad newspaper last January has blown up into a global scandal featuring a U.N. investigation, a U.S. congressional probe and growing interest in the international online media.
It began on January 25, when al-Mada (in Arabic), an independent weekly in the Iraqi capital, published a list of 270 people and organizations that allegedly received valuable oil vouchers from the government of Saddam Hussein between 1996 and 2002 under the U.N. oil-for-food program.
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The al-Mada story, translated into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute, said the list showed that Hussein had given oil to "certain Arab and foreign dignitaries... in exchange for their support of the regime in a period of international isolation, and as a way to finance the campaign to lift the economic sanctions against it." (MEMRI, based in Washington, is a pro-Israeli organization that selectively translates articles from Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew into English and other languages in an effort to expose what is being said in the Middle East media. Political motivations aside, its translations are regarded as credible.)
The oil-for-food program allowed Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil, under supposedly tight U.N. supervision, to finance the purchase of much-needed humanitarian goods. The oil vouchers were allegedly given either as gifts or as payment for goods imported into Iraq in violation of the U.N. sanctions. The al-Mada story suggests that some of the most vocal critics of U.N. sanctions on Iraq were on the take from Saddam Hussein and benefited from monies intended to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people.
In short, right-wingers love this story and liberals have less appetite for it. For the Bush administration, now reliant on U.N. help to stabilize Iraq, the scandal comes at an awkward time. Conservative, pro-war news organizations in the United States, Great Britain and Australia have taken the lead in pursuing the al-Mada story because, to them, the story confirms U.N. corruption and untrustworthiness. The hawkish Daily Telegraph has pushed the story in England, with help from the pro-war topless tabloid, the Sun. James Morrow, a columnist for the Australian, Rupert Murdoch's ideological flagship down under, says "U.N. apologists remain silent."
That's not entirely true. Yes, in France, the news portal Voila has shown more interest than Le Monde, the leftist Parisian daily that champions multilateralism. But the Vietnam News Agency, which recently described the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq as "the shrinking skin of a wild ass," is covering the story closely from Hanoi.
The story has attracted wide interest because those implicated are so prominent. The list of 270 names, which al-Mada said came from Iraqi Oil Ministry documents, included Arab, French and Russian politicians, as well as political parties and businesses in countries from Algeria to Vietnam.
Al-Mada lamented that Husseins "fascist regime... corrupted even those who had good intentions and noble goals when defending the Iraqi people and trying to lift the siege imposed on it. The regime... surrounded itself with people that it could co-opt," according to the MEMRI translation.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan responded to the al-Mada story on March 19 by asking the Security Council to authorize an investigation.
"It is highly possible that there's been quite a lot of wrongdoing, but we need to investigate and get to see who was responsible," Annan said, according to the U.N. News Centre. As The Washington Post reported, Annan followed up by naming a three-member investigative panel headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, a figure with credibility among U.S. congressional conservatives who are also investigation the allegations.
On the U.N. Security Council, the French did not object but Russia was opposed. Kommersant, a leading Moscow daily, says it took a personal phone call from Annan to the Russian foreign minister to secure Moscow's vote. On April 21, the five-member Security Council unanimously "welcomed" the inquiry, according to The Post, and urged members to "cooperate fully."
In London, the conservative Daily Telegraph has taken the lead in probing the financial dealings of George Galloway, a member of Parliament and a leading anti-war spokesman, whose name appeared on the al-Mada list. Galloway has denied receiving money from Hussein's regime.
In Canada, Arthur Millholland, president of a Calgary-based oil company whose name appeared on the al-Mada list, told Toronto's Globe and Mail that the U.N. oil-for-food program "was so corrupt that Saddam Hussein's government officials set specific bribe amounts on each oil delivery and set up bank accounts in Jordan to accept the illicit cash.
"Did people in the UN know that Saddam was asking for surcharges or the Iraqi regime was asking for surcharges?" Millholland was quoted as saying. "They had to."