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Congress Reviews Efforts to Return Saddam's Looted Billions to Iraqi People

Bush administration officials have testified before Congress about their efforts to locate, seize and repatriate billions of dollars in assets of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The officials spoke at one of several congressional hearings to examine the aftermath of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Congresswoman Sue Kelly opened the hearing by observing that billions of dollars taken by Saddam Hussein, or skimmed off from the United Nations Oil for Food program since 1991, needs to be returned to the Iraqi people.

"This money that was taken, belongs to them," stressed Ms. Kelly. "These assets must be found and they must be returned to the people of Iraq to build schools, and re-open businesses, and hospitals, and repair the country's infrastructure all of it destroyed by the malicious neglect of a tyrant and his inner circle."

The House subcommittee on investigations is one of a number of panels looking at the challenges of reconstruction in Iraq, of which recovery of assets is a major part.

Among the witnesses was David Afhauser, General Counsel for the U.S. Treasury Department. He described the effects of what he called 25 years of tyranny in Iraq.

"The long war with Iran, the unlawful invasion of Kuwait, the elevation of callous corruption to an art form, and the decade of sanctions bookended by obscene public extravagances in the palaces, while the common man lined up at one of 55,000 U.N. food distribution points, all bankrupted a rich country in everything except the hunger for freedom," he said.

Mr. Afhauser says the assets include the $1.7 billion in U.S. accounts, frozen by President Bush, and another $2.3 billion in other countries dating back to 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

U.S. forces took $91 million in frozen Iraqi assets with them to Iraq to pay for initial costs, including payments to oil and dock workers and pensioners.

American and foreign investigators are also focusing on stolen assets from Iraq's central bank, and unallocated money from the U.N. Oil for Food program.

Mr. Afhauser says locating billions more believed stolen by Saddam Hussein and his family will be the most important objective.

"Whatever unfound money there is ought to be returned to feed people. Whatever the hidden wealth is, it needs to be captured before it falls into the hands of the purveyors of terror," said the Treasury Dept. lawyer. "And whatever commerce took place by corrupting the U.N. Oil for Food program and by nakedly gaming the economic sanction program up at the U.N., it needs to be answered and punished by denying profit to the illegal trade."

Among successes reported by Mr. Afhauser: Lebanon's central bank this week identified and secured $495 million in previously-unknown assets held by the former Central Bank of Iraq, and Iraq's State Oil Marketing Organization.

In a separate hearing Wednesday, the U.N. Oil for Food Program was sharply criticized by lawmakers who want it to end, along with United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimates that Saddam Hussein accumulated more than $6 billion from illegal oil smuggling and kickbacks from the program between 1997 and 2001.