By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
A British lawmaker forcefully denied allegations in a Senate hearing yesterday that he received rights to purchase millions of barrels of Iraqi oil at a discount from Saddam Hussein's government, and he delivered a fiery attack on three decades of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
George Galloway, a formidable debater recently ousted from the British Labor Party after attacking Prime Minister Tony Blair for supporting the war in Iraq, used his appearance before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations as a forum to challenge the veracity of the Bush administration's case for going to war.
He also unleashed a personal attack against panel Chairman Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), calling his investigation the "mother of all smoke screens" designed to "divert attention from the crimes that you supported" by endorsing President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
"Senator, I am not now nor have I ever been an oil trader and neither has anyone on my behalf," said Galloway, dispensing with the deference traditionally reserved for Senate leaders. "I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf."
Galloway's testimony under oath came less than a week after Coleman's subcommittee published a report including Iraqi documents that allegedly detailed the former government's approval to allow the member of Parliament to purchase about 20 million barrels of oil from 2000 to 2002. Former Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, who is in U.S. custody, told Senate investigators in April that Galloway had been awarded rights to buy oil "because of his opinions about Iraq."
The subcommittee yesterday also discussed its investigation of allegations that the former Iraqi government used its oil wealth to curry favor with senior government officials, politicians and businessmen in Russia and France. The panel alleged that a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, also received rights to buy millions of barrels of discounted oil.
"Saddam used oil to his geopolitical and strategic advantage," Coleman said. "Over the past week, the subcommittee has released a number of bipartisan reports detailing how the Hussein regime quickly manipulated the use of oil allocations to garner political influence around the globe."
The Senate subcommittee has not presented any bank records or other documentation showing that Galloway traded in Iraqi oil or paid kickbacks to the government. But Coleman, a former prosecutor, engaged in a feisty exchange with Galloway as he sought to prove the subcommittee's claim that the British politician had used Mariam Appeals, a charity established to care for a 4-year-old Iraqi girl with leukemia, to launder Iraqi money.
Coleman questioned Galloway about the appearance of his name on Iraqi oil ministry documents approving his right to purchase large quantities of oil. He also sought to demonstrate that a wealthy Jordanian businessman who participated in the Iraqi oil trade, and who served as a major donor and chairman of Galloway's charity, was buying Iraqi oil on Galloway's behalf.
Galloway, who repeatedly evaded questions concerning his views of his Jordanian associate's involvement in the Iraqi oil trade to make broader political points, presented the committee with a hefty dossier that he said expressed his opposition to Hussein's government over the past 15 years "in the most withering terms." However, he also described himself as a "friend" of former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, and said that he met twice with Hussein.
Galloway acknowledged that he was aware that the Jordanian chairman of his charity was a commercial partner of the Iraqi government but said that Galloway never personally profited from any business dealings in Iraq.
He also noted that previous Iraqi documents used in newspaper reports, including one in the Christian Science Monitor, to link him to the Iraqi government have proven to be forgeries.
"What counts is not the names on the paper; what counts is where is the money, Senator?" he said. "Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars of money? The answer to that is nobody. And if you had anybody who ever paid me a penny, you would have produced them here today."
Coleman said he did not believe Galloway came across as a "credible witness" and warned that his staff would examine his testimony to determine whether he perjured himself. "If in fact he lied to this committee, there will have to be consequences," Coleman told reporters after the hearing.
Galloway repeatedly cited a report this week by the committee's minority staff members that alleged that a Texas-based oil company paid $37 million in kickbacks to Hussein's government and criticized the Treasury Department for not monitoring sanctions violations by U.S. companies. But he also took a jab at Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), the committee's ranking Democrat, incorrectly charging him with supporting the "illegal attack on Iraq."
Levin, an outspoken critic of the invasion, said, "Sorry about that, I didn't."