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Russia Cooperating with Oil-for-Food Probe

After creating difficulties last month, Russia is now cooperating with the independent investigation into alleged corruption in the multibillion-dollar U.N. oil-for-food program (search) in Iraq, a spokesman for the investigation said Friday.

The four other veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Britain, France and China — also are cooperating with the investigation led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker (search), said the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Last month, an official close to the investigation said Russian diplomats "dug in their heels" and declined to provide witnesses or information during a meeting in Moscow with members of Volcker's Independent Inquiry Committee.

But the inquiry spokesman said "those obstacles have since been overcome and the Russians are on point" and have been "much more cooperative and been much more understanding."

Britain and France have said they signed memorandums of understanding with the Volcker inquiry, setting out the parameters of their cooperation. This is usually done to ensure consistency with a country's laws, but is not required and can put limits on the extent of cooperation.

Russia and other permanent members that haven't signed memorandums of understanding are cooperating as well, the spokesman stressed.

The Security Council authorized the oil-for-food program to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Launched in December 1996, it 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 Security Council committee overseeing sanctions monitored the contracts.

Although Saddam delayed the program for years, he quickly realized it could be exploited and did so until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, former Iraqi officials report.

A report in October by top U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer said Saddam was able to "subvert" the $60 billion oil-for-food program to generate an estimated $1.7 billion in revenue outside U.N. control from 1997-2003.

The report alleged that Saddam issued secret vouchers for the purchase of Iraqi oil to U.N. officials and an array of officials and political figures from various countries — especially Russia, France and China — reportedly to curry favor with key Security Council members. That oil could then be resold at a profit.

In addition, the report said Saddam brought in over $8 billion from illicit oil deals with Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, either by smuggling or illegal pumping through pipelines during the period that sanctions were in place from 1991-2003.

Last month, U.S. Congressional investigators estimated that Saddam had raised more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue through oil-for-food, smuggling and other schemes, but U.N. observers believe this figure is too high.