Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said the U.N. watchdog has begun an investigation of allegations that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (search) reaped millions of dollars from the U.N. oil-for-food humanitarian program.
"We are exploring," Annan told reporters, adding that the Office for Internal Oversight Services (search) has been in touch with the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition seeking additional information.
The oil-for-food program (search) was established by the U.N. Security Council in December 1996 to help ordinary Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It quickly became a lifeline for 90 percent of the population.
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. Saddam's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them, and who could buy Iraqi oil.
In late January, the Governing Council asked the Oil Ministry to gather information on allegations that Saddam'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.
There were also reports that Saddam was soliciting bribes on oil-for-food contracts.
Annan said the head of the U.N. watchdog agency, Dileep Nair, has started to investigate what other measures need to be taken, "whether he has the capacity or he needs to bring in additional people."
When the program ended, its executive director Benon Sevan said $65 billion of oil had been exported and $31 billion in food and medicine had been delivered to the Iraqi people. At least $8.2 billion worth of humanitarian goods was still in the delivery pipeline at the time.