U.S. Backs U.N. Oil-for-Food Probe

The United States will support a U.N.-backed investigation into alleged corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program (search), the U.S. ambassador said Tuesday. France and Russia -- two countries strongly implicated in the purported wrongdoing -- were more reluctant.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi Governing Council said it was launching its own investigation into the allegations of corruption, which first surfaced last January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada.

The newspaper had a list of about 270 former government officials, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales.

"Thousands of government and nongovernment officials and politicians were bribed, all under the nose of the United Nations," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for council member Ahmad Chalabi (search). "The United Nations allowed this to happen without interference. Some high-ranking U.N. officials were also involved."

The allegations have been a major embarrassment for the United Nations and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) wants to take swift action and clear the world body of blame. Among the names on the list is Benon Sevan, the U.N. official who was executive director of the program. He has denied wrongdoing.

Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said Annan welcomed the Baghdad investigation but would press ahead with the independent probe as well.

"I think he would welcome any additional light that others could shed on the situation, either out of Baghdad or out of a national capital," Eckhard said. "But I think he feels it's his responsibility to launch a U.N.-based investigation."

U.S. congressional investigators have also looked into the program, charging last week that Saddam's government smuggled oil, added surcharges and collected kickbacks to rake in $10.1 billion in violation of the oil-for-food program.

On Tuesday, the United States unequivocally supported the U.N.-backed probe, which Annan announced Friday.

"We have already communicated to the secretary-general that we're prepared to cooperate in every possible way," U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said. "I think he's responding to some of the criticism and allegations that have been made and I think he is taking a very constructive approach."

Annan has still not said what the probe's mandate will be or who will be on the panel. It's also not clear how much authority it will have.

U.N. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said in earlier consultations some delegations had expressed concern about a probe, so Annan decided not to risk seeking a Security Council resolution backing it, but instead a less powerful sign of support.

The official would not say who had the biggest concern, but Russia and France have been more cautious than others. France's U.N. ambassador Jean Marc de la Sabliere said Monday that while France backed transparency in principle, it wanted clarification on what the panel would do. Russia expressed similar concern.

"I think there is a lot of questions which we would like to be clarified before we take a decision" on whether to support the investigation, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said.

According to Al-Mada, the bulk of the bribes went to Russian firms as part of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's bid to maintain good ties with the Kremlin, which argued against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year.

The program, which was established in December, 1996 and 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.