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UN to Expand Corruption Probe of Iraqi 'Oil for Food' Program - 2004-03-18

The United Nations is preparing to expand its investigation into charges of widespread corruption in the Iraq "Oil For Food" program. The program was shut down last November, amid allegations that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used it to funnel billions of dollars to friendly individuals and governments.

Senior U.N, officials conferred with Security Council countries Thursday to determine how to investigate the unprecedented allegations.

Earlier this week, the Office of Internal Oversight Services was asked to look into the charges. But with accusations flying that more than $10 billion may have been siphoned off by a whole network of Saddam's friends and associates, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Thursday a wider probe is necessary.

"Any such investigation would require support of the Security Council, and the secretary-general has indicated this week that he has been talking to members of Council," he said.

The oil-for-food program was the United Nations largest-ever relief operation, involving more than $100 billion. It allowed Saddam Hussein's government to sell oil to buy humanitarian goods.

Several investigative journalists have alleged the program was riddled with corruption. The Wall Street Journal newspaper, in a Thursday editorial, said a mountain of evidence has accumulated suggesting that the Iraqi people suffered from shortages of quality food and medicine not because international sanctions were too strict, but because lax or corrupt oversight at U.N, headquarters in New York allowed Saddam Hussein to exploit the system for his own purposes.

Those implicated in the investigation include U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Benon Sevon, who directed the Oil for Food program from 1996 until it was shut down last November. Mr. Sevon is on vacation until next month, when he is scheduled to retire, and has been unavailable to comment.

Published lists of those who appear to have benefited from the program include large numbers of French and Russian names, including that of a former French interior minister.

France's U.N. ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, Thursday said his country supports a full and transparent investigation.

"We are in favor of transparency," he said. "That one should not depart from basic principle that anyone should be presumed innocent until convicted. We have just heard allegations from the media that are not supported by evidence, at least as yet. This is why we understand the Secretariat request to relevant authorities in Iraq for documentary evidence. We think this is a reasonable approach."

U.N. spokesman Eckhard said earlier this week that the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S. and British-led coalition have been asked to provide evidence of corruption. But Mr. Eckhard pointed out that the program is so complicated, there are not many people, even within the United Nations, who understand it. He said it may be some time before a clear picture emerges of possible wrongdoing.