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U.N. Mystery Man: Who Is Jean-Bernard Merimee and What's His Oil-for-Food Tie?

As investigations proliferate into the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal, one of the more intriguing mysteries involves a former French diplomat with a direct link to the U.N.’s executive suite: Jean-Bernard Merimee (search).

The 68-year-old Merimee, one of several individuals now under investigation in France for alleged involvement in Saddam Hussein’s Oil-for-Food scams, is well known for his role in the early 1990s as French ambassador to the United Nations. What investigators have not so far highlighted is that during the period Merimee is alleged to have come into commercial contact with Saddam’s regime, starting in December 2001, he was working not for the French government, but as a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search).

Merimee’s name first surfaced in relation to Oil-for-Food (search) early last year, with the publication in Baghdad’s Al-Mada newspaper of a long list of politicians and businessmen worldwide alleged to have received lucrative oil allocations from Saddam, which could be resold to commercial dealers for an easy profit.

His name turned up again last fall, with the release of a report by the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, in an annex containing what senior U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer (search) described as “secret lists” maintained in Baghdad by senior officials of Saddam’s regime.

On these lists, the apparent mention of Jean-Bernard Merimee, transliterated from Arabic as “Mr. Jan Mirami [French]” turned up three times, noted as having been allocated 4 million barrels of oil during the last three of the U.N. program’s 13 six-month phases — a stretch beginning Dec. 1, 2001 and truncated in March 2003 when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam.

Did Merimee even know he was on the Saddam regime’s secret list of oil beneficiaries?

According to the Duelfer report, the allocations linked to Merimee’s name were “not performed.” The Duelfer report does show the Merimee allocations linked to an oil trading company, French-based Aredio Petroleum, which also appears in the report as the alleged intermediary for a number of deals with other parties, in which oil was lifted. These include oil allocations to the Iraqi-French Friendship Society, as well as a Jordanian businessman, Fawaz Zurequat, sometime business partner of British parliamentarian George Galloway — whose name also appears on the Al Mada and Duelfer lists, but who has denied receiving any oil allocations from Iraq.

Nonetheless, the Merimee-Saddam connection could spell yet more trouble for Secretary-General Annan, who from 1997-2003 presided over the management of Oil-for-Food, and is already close to the scandal on several fronts.

His son, Kojo Annan, worked for a company hired in 1998 by the U.N. Secretariat to inspect Oil-for-Food imports into Iraq. Annan’s handpicked head of the Oil-for-Food program — former Under Secretary-General Benon Sevan, now a $1-per-year U.N. “adviser” — is under criminal investigation in New York state and has been censured for a “grave and continuing conflict of interest” by the U.N.-authorized inquiry into Oil-for-Food, which is expected to issue further findings about him shortly.

Earlier this month, another of Annan’s special advisers — Maurice Strong, who also held the senior rank of Under Secretary-General and was Annan’s personal envoy to North Korea — departed the United Nations pending clarification of his ties to Tongsun Park, a South Korean charged by the U.S. attorney with accepting millions of dollars from Saddam’s regime to lobby U.N. officials.

Now comes the French investigation into Merimee, who was hired by Annan in 1999 to work “as needed” as “Special Adviser of the Secretary-General for European issues.” Merimee served from 1991-1995 as French ambassador to the United Nations, and then as French ambassador to Italy.

Until this week, Merimee figured on the U.N. Web site’s list of “Special and Personal Representatives and Envoys of the Secretary-General,” with the rank of Under Secretary-General. Following a query this past Tuesday into Merimee’s whereabouts, the United Nations quietly removed his name from the list. Asked about the revision, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric (search) explained that Merimee has not worked for the United Nations since Feb. 14, 2002, and that his name had remained on the list for more than three years due to an “oversight.”

According to Dujarric, Merimee’s job as special adviser to Annan was to help the United Nations negotiate a framework for “the disbursement of funds” from the European Commission to the world body, leading to a deal that was signed in 2003. Presumably, that entailed no direct link to Iraq. But it did place Merimee in the sensitive spot of negotiating for the Secretary-General over arrangements for European funding for the United Nations.

Merimee was still doing that job in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, as the debate began turning hot over Iraq – a debate that ultimately polarized with Annan lining up with European heavyweights Germany and France to protest the U.S.-led coalition’s overthrow of Saddam.

In his position as Annan’s special adviser on Europe – whether Merimee knew it or not — he would have made a logical target for Saddam’s attempts to lobby both the European Union and by extension the United Nations, especially with European funding at issue. Certainly Merimee would have been a familiar figure to some of Saddam’s veteran senior diplomats.

In Merimee’s earlier incarnation as French U.N. ambassador, he did four one-month stints as chairman of the U.N. Security Council (search): in 1991, 1992 and 1994, during the early years of U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and again in May 1995, the month after the Security Council passed Resolution 986 authorizing Iraqi relief under sanctions, via oil-for-food. Merimee is on record both as insisting in 1991 that Iraq cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, and dismissing as irrelevant in 1994 a U.S. presentation of photos showing that while the Iraqi people were suffering the squeeze of sanctions, Saddam was building palaces.

What to make of all this? Repeated attempts this week to contact Merimee — or even locate him — hit a series of dead ends. Spokesmen for the French U.N. mission, the European Commission’s New York office, and the United Nations itself, all say they have no contact information for him. Calls to a phone number in Paris said to be his were not answered.

Despite the allegations, there is no proof Merimee did anything wrong. It remains a source of some mystery whether French investigators now delving into the case will divulge whether Merimee was knowingly involved in Saddam’s plans to provide him with profitable oil deals; or was the unwitting target of a failed bribery scheme; or whether the allegations about “Jan Mirami [French],” are accurate at all.

On the U.N. front, however, there is the question of why, if Merimee’s work for the organization ended on Feb. 14, 2002, there was no public announcement of his departure. And also why his name remained for another three years on the public list of those enjoying the senior status of U.N. under –secretary-general and special adviser to Kofi Annan — an “oversight” amended only after an inquiry to Annan’s office this week, following up on recent news that Merimee had become one of the targets of a French Oil-for-Food probe.

And, on a far bigger scale, there is the question of whether the U.N.-authorized inquiry into Oil-for-Food, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is planning to clarify not only the roles in the scandal of former Under Secretaries-General Maurice Strong, Benon Sevan and now Jean-Bernard Merimee, but their ties to Annan himself — and his knowledge, if any, of their alleged ties to Saddam during their U.N. service.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with The Foundations for the Defense of Democracies and a consultant to FOX News.

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.