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OIL-FOR-FOOD PROGRAM

Annan seeks to open corruption inquiry

UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary General Kofi Annan sought Security Council approval yesterday for an independent investigation into alleged corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program.

Annan announced his decision to expand a current internal UN probe last night in a letter sent to the Security Council.

The UN chief said he wants "an independent, high-level inquiry to investigate the allegations relating to the administration and management of the program, including allegations of fraud and corruption."

Annan's letter didn't explain elaborate on how an independent probe would be handled. Annan said he would send a further letter later with more detailed information on how such an inquiry would be organized. The UN is now conducting an internal investigation into the allegations.

Earlier yesterday, Annan told journalists that such an investigation was needed into allegations that UN staff may have reaped millions of dollars from the oil-for-food program that helped Iraqis cope with UN sanctions.

Annan told journalists that he has been talking with Security Council members about the scope of the investigation and the need for international cooperation to make it effective.

"I think we need to have an independent investigation, an investigation that can be as broad as possible to look into all these allegations which have been made and get to the bottom of this because I don't think we need to have our reputation impugned," he said.

The oil-for-food program was established by the UN Security Council in December 1996.

The program, which ended in November, allowed the former Iraqi regime to sell unlimited quantities of oil, provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War.

The UN has already sent two letters to the Iraqi Governing Council and the US-led coalition requesting evidence of corruption in the program.

In late January, the Governing Council asked the country's Oil Ministry to gather information on allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime bribed prominent foreigners with oil money to back his government.

The request followed publication in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada of a list of about 270 former Cabinet officials, legislators, political activists, and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales.

The announcement was made a day after US congressional investigators, in a separate set of allegations, charged that Saddam Hussein's government smuggled oil, added surcharges, and collected kickbacks to rake in $10.1 billion in violation of the United Nations' oil-for-food program.

UN officials have said that they would not comment on the US figure unless there was "a comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the oil-for-food program, not just UN personnel, but what governments and companies did."

"We certainly knew there was skimming by Saddam and his cronies, but with regard to UN officials, no," a US official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We certainly hope there are no UN officials involved, but if there are some involved, then they should be held accountable."

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