Wed, Jan 12, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Officials look at UN oil-for-food audits


Newly released UN audits of the oil-for-food program leave unanswered questions about whether deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used the program to illegally raise billions of dollars, congressional leaders said.

Lawmakers had repeatedly demanded that the UN turn over more than 50 internal audits on the program, suspecting they would provide evidence that the former Iraqi president manipulated the humanitarian program with the help of corrupt or inept UN overseers.

But the audits released Sunday night didn't tackle the corruption issues at the heart of the matter. While finding repeated examples of overpayments to contractors and the mismanagement of purchases, the audits do not address the broader issues of oversight by UN headquarters and of the program's contracting and banking procedures.

"These audits do not answer even a fraction of the questions we have been asking or will be continuing to ask as our investigation moves ahead," said Senator Norm Coleman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigations subcommittee, one of several panels looking at the program.

Representative Chris Shays, the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security subcommittee, said Monday that the audits raise the question, "How was the UN internal watchdog effectively neutered?"

The UN ran the oil-for-food program from 1996 to last year while Iraq was under sanctions. It allowed Saddam to export oil under UN oversight and use the proceeds to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

The program is credited with preventing starvation in Iraq. But several US investigations have found that Saddam used the program to make a fortune through kickbacks and other illicit payments. A CIA report cited evidence that Saddam used it to bribe leading international figures, including oil-for-food administrator Benon Sevan.

Sevan has denied wrongdoing.

The allegations prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to name a three-man committee, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, to investigate the program. With that investigation continuing, the UN declined to give the audits to congressional panels, saying disclosure of the reports could undermine the inquiry.

With Volcker's panel nearing completion of an interim report and congressional pressure continuing, it released the audits Sunday on its Web site.

In an accompanying report, Volcker said the audits had been performed well, but the limited scope appears to have "deprived the UN of a potentially powerful agent in helping to ensure accountability."

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