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First Guilty Plea Entered in UN Oil-for-Food Scandal

The first criminal charges linked to alleged corruption involving the United Nations' oil-for-food-program in Iraq have been filed against an American who has pleaded guilty to accepting payments from Saddam Hussein's government. The case is just the start of what could be multiple criminal investigations into how a program meant to help the Iraqi people was corrupted.

Iraqi-American Samir Vincent admitted in a New York court Tuesday to acting as an agent of Saddam Hussein's government in exchange for being granted the rights to sell millions of dollars worth of Iraqi oil.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the guilty plea, which marks the first U.S. criminal conviction stemming from multiple investigations into the U.N. oil for food scandal.

"In February of 1996, Vincent traveled to Baghdad and drafted agreements with Iraqi government officials that guaranteed millions of dollars of compensation for Vincent and others if they were able to get the oil for food program implemented," said Mr. Ashcroft.

Federal prosecutors say Vincent ultimately earned between $3-$5 million after selling the oil rights he was secretly awarded.

Normally, the four counts of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government would carry a maximum of 28 years in prison. But prosecutors say that sentence will likely be reduced.

"As part of the agreement, Vincent is cooperating with the United States Justice Department's investigation of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program," he added.

The now disbanded program was set up in 1996, at a time when Iraq was under sanctions, as a way of allowing Saddam Hussein to use what were supposed to be strictly monitored oil sales to purchase humanitarian aid for his people. But allegations of widespread corruption in the program began to surface after the fall of Baghdad nearly two years ago. By some accounts, the former Iraqi leader was able to secretly siphon off billions of dollars in oil revenue for himself, while allegedly diverting the rights to sell millions more to a top U.N. official charged with overseeing the program.

Prosecutors suggest more people could be charged, and at her Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice left no doubt the issue will be a top priority if she is confirmed as secretary of state, as expected.

"We've got to get to the bottom of what happened here and those who were responsible, I think, should be held accountable," said Ms. Rice.

An independent panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to look into what he has described as "serious allegations" is expected to release its findings as early as this month. In addition, multiple congressional investigations into the scandal are under way. Some in Washington have even called for the secretary general resign over the matter.