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Russia uncooperative in oil-for-food probe

UNITED NATIONS – Russia is refusing to provide witnesses or information to the independent investigation into alleged corruption in the multibillion-dollar U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq, an official close to the investigation said Wednesday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russian diplomats “dug in their heels” during a meeting in Moscow this week with members of the independent inquiry.

Russia is a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council which approved Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s recommendation in April to set up an independent panel headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to probe all aspects of the oil-for-food program, including actions of U.N. member states.

Under the program, Russian companies were major recipients of contracts from Saddam Hussein’s government for the sale of Iraqi oil and the supply of humanitarian goods to Iraq.

Launched in December 1996 to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the program 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. Saddam’s government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them, and who could buy Iraqi oil – but the U.N. committee overseeing sanctions monitored the contracts.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement earlier Wednesday that Russian exporters operating under the program did not violate sanctions.

A report by top U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer, released last month, alleged that Saddam issued secret vouchers for purchase of oil to an array of officials and political figures from various countries, dominated by Russia, France and China. That oil could then be resold at a profit.

Saddam allegedly issued the vouchers with the aim of currying favor among U.N. Security Council members.

U.S. congressional investigators on Monday estimated that Saddam had raised more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue, using the oil-for-food program and other schemes, like the illegal smuggling of oil.

In Russia, the recipients allegedly included the presidential administration’s office, top oil companies Yukos and Lukoil, and ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the report said.