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US Lawmakers Seek Thorough Probe of UN Oil-for-Food Program - 2004-04-07

U.S. lawmakers are calling on the United Nations to conduct a thorough investigation of alleged corruption in its oil-for-food program in Iraq. They say such a probe is crucial if the world body is to maintain credibility as it prepares to play a role in the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq in late June.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday criticized the United Nations for corruption and graft in Iraq's oil-for-food program.

Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office, estimates the regime of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein siphoned billions of dollars in illegal revenue from the program between 1997 and 2002.

The program allowed Iraq to make some humanitarian purchases through limited oil sales at a time when Baghdad was under international sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee suggested the United Nations' failure to adequately monitor the program calls into question its ability to help Iraq make a transition to a sovereign government June 30.

"There are serious allegations about mismanagement and corruption that must be addressed," said Delaware Senator Joe Biden, the panel's top Democrat. "Not only to hold accountable those who are guilty of corruption, but to make sure we get it right in the future, because we are going to lose credibility, the institution will lose credibility and the ability in the future to act is going to be seriously damaged.

Committee chairman, Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, agreed. "The credibility of the United Nations in attempting to referee, supervise, or help to transform Iraq in this situation is really at stake," he said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for an independent probe into the corruption allegations.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, told the Foreign Relations Committee that he is urging the secretary general to appoint experienced investigators who will handle the process in a viable and transparent way.

"I think it is important that he [Secretary General Annan] choose very high caliber people of outstanding reputation to lead this panel. I understand he intends to name the panel members in the near future," he said.

Some senators blamed Russia, France and China for blocking past U.S. efforts to investigate the corruption allegations. Those nations played a key role in the oil-for-food program.

Senator Lugar suggested those countries may have opposed the U.S.-led coalition's decision to use force to topple Saddam Hussein because ousting the regime would expose corruption in the oil-for-food program.