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UN to Probe Alleged Irregularities in Iraq Oil-for-Food Program - 2004-03-24

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will name an independent panel to investigate allegations of multi-billion dollar corruption in the Iraq Oil-for-Food program. The panel is expected to have broad authority to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by governments as well as individuals.

Secretary-General Annan is pushing ahead with plans to name a high-level panel this week, despite objections from some countries. Mr. Annan had earlier sought a Security Council mandate, possibly a resolution, authorizing the probe, in hopes of giving the panel greater authority.

But Tuesday, spokesman Fred Eckhard indicated that such a mandate was not likely. He declined to be more specific, but diplomats say permanent Council members France and Russia are among those expressing reservations about such a probe.

Mr. Eckhard said the secretary-general has been consulting with Security Council member governments for two weeks, and remains hopeful of their support.

"The whole point of consultations with Council members over the last two weeks was to convince them of the need for such an independent investigation in the hopes that he would get their support," he said. "Without government support, this investigation isn't going to go very far, so he's hoping for some kind of signal from the Council that they support this effort."

U.N. diplomats say Mr. Annan's push for a high-level probe of the multi-billion dollar Oil-for-Food program was prompted by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. The New York Times Tuesday reported that Mr. Powell called the secretary-general two weeks ago and urged him to take a more aggressive approach, because charges of mismanagement and corruption were damaging the world body.

Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte said it is proper that Mr. Annan should take the lead role in any investigation, in his capacity as chief administrative officer of the United Nations. "He's responding to some of the criticisms and allegations that have been made, and I think he's taking a very constructive approach to dealing with these allegations," he said.

Ambassador Negroponte said he had been assured that the investigation would be led by an independent and professionally competent individual from outside the United Nations.

The U.N. probe would be one of at least three looking into the Oil-for-Food program, which was shut down last November. The U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council began an investigation in January, after an Iraqi newspaper published a list of more than 250 firms and individuals it said were suspected of profiting illegally from the program.

The U.S. General Accounting Office is also looking into alleged financial irregularities. A GAO report this month estimated former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein siphoned off more than $10 billion in illegal proceeds from the program, on the sale of more than $67 billion worth of oil.