European companies scrambled Friday to defend themselves after a probe alleged more than 2,000 firms paid altogether US$1.8 billion in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime as Iraq abused a UN humanitarian aid program.
The French bank BNP Paribas, which managed the accounts of the UN's oil-for-food program, rejected criticism it had acted improperly and insisted that it had carried out its responsibilities "in good faith and in conformity" with the relevant UN resolution.
The investigation led by former US Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker concluded in a report issued on Thursday that Saddam's regime manipulated the program set up to help ordinary Iraqis suffering under international sanctions.
According to the 500-page report, 139 companies paid illegal oil surcharges to Baghdad and 2,253 firms gave Saddam's regime kickbacks on humanitarian-related goods shipped to Iraq, while an inept UN headquarters failed to exert administrative control.
The UN Security Council set up the program, which allowed Baghdad to export a limited amount of its oil to purchase food and medicine under UN supervision, in 1996 and it ran to 2003.
The report singled out BNP for detailed criticism, saying it faced a clear conflict of interest.
"BNP's loyalties were divided" between safeguarding the transparency of the program for the UN and protecting the interests and confidentiality of its clients to whom it issued letters of credit for purchasing Iraqi oil.
The bank also allegedly failed to intervene or question when obscure companies were depositing and withdrawing vast amounts of money in a flurry of transactions, the report alleged.
While the report raised serious questions about the practices of the companies named, Volcker stopped short of an explicit condemnation or verdict, saying many firms may have been unaware of what their agents had done.
Companies were quick to deny any wrongdoing, however.
German engineering giant Siemens dismissed allegations it paid US$1.6 million dollars in kickbacks, saying the report's conclusion it was involved in any illegal activities as "premature and unjustified."
Truck and construction equipment maker Volvo Group said it was conducting an investigation after its former agent in Iraq supposedly told investigators he had made payments.
"If he says so, then we have to assume that that is what happened," Volvo spokesman Maarten Wikforss told reporters, stressing that the company was still investigating what exactly took place.
The Volcker report said the payments had totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars related to a contract to supply equipment.
"If it is confirmed that the accusations are valid and improper actions have occurred, we will naturally take actions," Volvo's chief executive Leif Johansson said in a statement.
Wikforss said however that any Volvo payments that may have been made were not seen as bribes.
"It was considered a tax or a charge that had to be paid in order to do business in Iraq. It was called the `10 percent system.' It was not seen as bribes," Wikforss said.
He insisted that Volvo does not condone bribery.
Russian companies singled out in the reported reacted angrily, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charging that the report used falsified documents.
The activities of the inquiry, which accused Russian state energy company Zarubezhneft of giving bribes, "represent an ill-intentioned throwback to Cold War times," the company said in a written statement published on its website.