A Senate committee investigating the UN's oil-for-food program for Iraq estimates that during 13 years of international sanctions, former president Saddam Hussein's government made at least US$21.3 billion illicitly -- more than double previous government estimates.
Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said at a subcommittee hearing on Monday that he doubted that fraud and abuse on this scale could have gone undetected by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan or even by senior US officials. And he said that because it was unknown where the illicit money ended up, he was worried that it may be helping to finance the insurgency in Iraq.
The UN aid program for Iraq ran from 1996 to last year, easing some of the effects of the sanctions by allowing the country to make monitored sales of oil and use the money to purchase aid like food and medicine. Since then, there has been growing evidence that Saddam's government exploited the program with a campaign of illicit oil sales, illegal surcharges and kickbacks as well as bribes aimed at lifting sanctions.
Coleman said the huge scale of fraud and theft while UN penalties were in effect had created a "dark stain" over the world organization that raised questions about whether it could put in place and monitor any sanctions.
Questions about how much money was siphoned away were particularly troubling, he added, because of allegations that Benon Sevan, who was in charge of the UN program, had benefited from special allocations of oil from Saddam.
Sevan has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.