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US Lawmakers See Iraq Documents on UN Oil for Food Program - 2004-09-22

Three members of Congress just back from Iraq say documents relating to the former U.N. Oil for Food Program appear to be secure and under the control of the Iraqi interim government. The lawmakers spoke in a news conference Tuesday about their visit to Baghdad, part of a congressional investigation into alleged corruption that is thought to have siphoned off billions of dollars from the program between 1996 and 2003.

Earlier this year, there was outrage in Congress over allegations that a web of corruption in the U.N. Oil for Food Program included not only Iraqis, but possibly also senior U.N. officials as well as foreign companies.

The charges concerning U.N. officials have not been proven, but a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that between $5 billion and $10 billion had gone into the pockets of Saddam Hussein or others in his regime.

Republican Congressman Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says many documents are now under Iraqi interim government supervision, while others are in other locations.

He describes U.S. congressional interest in an Iraqi interim government investigation underway.

"Our investigation is not in any way to try and find fault with what they're doing in Iraq. It is to establish the evidence of who received some of the illegal vouchers, and set-asides, and payoffs, in the international community outside of Iraq," he said. "I am very confident the Iraqis are going to be able to bring to justice their citizens within Iraq that abused the program."

Congressman Barton says discussions he and two other lawmakers had in Iraq provide anecdotal evidence of corruption he says leads, in his words, very high in various organizations outside of Iraq, although he says their visit did not turn up what he calls a smoking gun document.

The lawmakers were surprised to learn that many of the documents held in Baghdad are in English.

Republican congressman Fred Upton describes one document detailing what appeared to be a questionable transaction.

"We did pull off one [document] that was in excess of $830,000 Euros to Russia, for camera equipment, SONY equipment, you know [there was] a whole bunch of stuff that was in there, and I have no idea why that would relate to the food for oil program," he added.

Also on the three-member congressional delegation was Republican congressman George Radanovich, who said he hopes the Iraqi interim government can ensure the safety of the documents.

Earlier this year, congressional committees held hearings on abuses of the U.N. Oil for Food Program, which by the time it was phased out after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, Mr. Barton says had become a personal cash producer for Saddam Hussein.

Now, Congressman Barton says Iraqis have a chance to conduct a thorough investigation.

"I believe that a lot of that money is still in private bank accounts, and that if we can find it and retrieve it, that money can yet go to the Iraqi people," he added.

A separate independent investigation of the U.N. Oil for Food Program is being conducted by the former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker.