India's foreign minister has stepped down from his post, following allegations that he and the ruling Congress Party benefited illegally from the U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq. The accusations, contained in a U.N. report, had triggered demands for the foreign minister's resignation.
The announcement that 74-year-old Natwar Singh would stand aside from his duties as foreign minister came just hours after the government announced a judicial investigation into claims that he had benefited from secret deals linked to the Iraq oil-for-food program.
Mr. Singh will remain in the cabinet as minister without portfolio, and is expected to be reinstated if he is cleared by the government probe.
The U.N. report says more than 2,000 companies worldwide and politicians in several nations made illegal payments to Saddam Hussein's government in return for contracts under the oil-for-food program. The report says the illegal transactions helped Saddam Hussein divert nearly $2 billion that should have gone toward humanitarian goods.
The report names Mr. Singh and the Congress Party, which heads the present coalition government, as "non-contractual beneficiaries." That means they did not have a contract to officially receive the oil, but otherwise received some payment from an oil transaction. Both have strongly denied the allegations.
The Indian prime minister's spokesman, Sanjaya Baru, says the judicial inquiry will help the government establish the truth of the charges.
"Prime minister has said he would like to go to the root of the matter," he said. "To go to the root of the matter you will need someone to find out what are the facts."
Following the U.N. report's publication, Mr. Singh faced strident demands by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party for his resignation.
But for days Mr. Singh rejected calls to resign, insisting he had received no favors and claiming the allegations were intended to discredit the ruling party, which had friendly relations with Baghdad.
Nevertheless the report has stirred a political storm in India and threatens to remain an embarrassment for the government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will take over the foreign ministry portfolio ahead of a key regional summit in Bangladesh this weekend.