U.N.'s record in Iraq raises doubts about ability to handle job What others say

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

Critics of Bush administration policy in Iraq repeatedly implore the president to hand off the responsibility of shepherding that nation toward democracy to the United Nations. But the U.N.'s track record in Iraq hardly inspires confidence in its ability to get the job done.

Last year it pulled out after a single terrorist bombing of its humanitarian headquarters in Baghdad. Were the U.N. to assume a larger role in administering the country, it certainly would face worse attacks. Would it stay there for the long haul?

And then there's the growing scandal with the U.N.'s late

oil-for-food program.

That program, which ran from 1996-2003, was created in response to charges that economic sanctions that the U.N. imposed against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War were hurting the Iraqi people. So the U.N. allowed Saddam to sell some of his nation's oil to buy food and other relief supplies.

It turns out that precious few of those oil dollars were

converted to aid that reached the masses. Instead, Saddam used the profits to line his own pockets. Who would've thought he could be so untrustworthy and neglectful of his own people?

But the corruption went far beyond Saddam's golden palaces. The despot manipulated the program to give oil to various global political and industrial officials at steeply discounted prices, which they in turn sold for profit on the world market. They then would return a portion of that profit to Saddam.

The Butcher of Baghdad pocketed an estimated $10 billion in kickbacks from the illegal sale of this oil, which he used on

luxury items and to illegally acquire technology not permitted under U.N. sanctions. Meanwhile, he cultivated a roster of

influential movers and shakers who were indebted to him for increasing their wealth. Coincidentally, many of these recipients of Iraqi oil hailed from the nations that most opposed toppling Saddam France and Russia.

It's not a stretch to think that many of these officials didn't want to see their sugar daddy taken away.

The situation would be bad enough if it were chalked up simply to shoddy U.N. oversight of the oil-for-food program. The mere fact that officials were that gullible and incompetent would weigh against the organization running something as complex as democratizing Iraq.

But evidence continues to mount that the U.N. role in oil-for-food wasn't just incompetent. It was complicit in the corruption.

ABC News broke the latest bombshell this week when it obtained documents from the former Iraqi Oil Ministry in Baghdad that linked U.N. Undersecretary General Benon Sevan, the man who ran the oil-for-food program, and two other senior U.N. officials with the names of 270 prominent foreign officials who traded Iraqi oil at cut-rate prices.

According to the ABC News Web site (abcnews.go.com), the second page of a letter from an Iraqi oil executive contains a table titled "Quantity of Oil Allocated and Given to Mr. Benon Sevan." The table lists a total of 7.3 million barrels of oil as the "quantity executed" an amount that, if true, would have generated an illegal profit of as much as $3.5 million.

That would be highly unethical, to say the least.

Mr. Sevan has been on leave from the U.N. since the scandal broke earlier this year. But his role, and the full scope of the oil-for-food corruption, should not be swept under the rug. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had been slow to instigate an investigation of the matter, until it became impossible to resist. Rather than leave it to some internal U.N. committee (i.e., the fox guarding the hen house), Mr. Annan has smartly created an independent three-person panel headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve under presidents Carter and Reagan and a man of impeccable character.

Mr. Volcker in turn wisely demanded that the Security Council pass a resolution giving his panel formal powers, with teeth, to investigate and directing all nations to cooperate. That was held up by the objections of surprise Russia, which wields veto power on the council. And which has several names on the list of those allegedly involved in illegal oil deals with Saddam.

This investigation won't go anywhere without constant pressure being applied by the United States and its allies. That includes separate, full hearings by Congress to keep the heat on, and to get to the truth even if it implicates American public or private officials.

If the allegations are only partly true, the damage to the credibility of the U.N. will be enormous. But it will be even worse if the organization attempts a cover-up. Full disclosure will reveal the U.N. as a serious institution attempting to repair itself and maintain its legitimacy on the world stage, even if it requires a complete overhaul.

Until that happens, the organization that betrayed the Iraqi people with an oil-for-food program that helped keep their tormentor in power should not be charged with turning around a free Iraq.

Savannah Morning News - April 22

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