Beware the Ghosts of Oil-for-Food

The difficulty of finding out who paid kickbacks in the U.N. Oil-for-Food (search) program is illustrated by two Liechtenstein-based firms, Alcon Petroleum and Fenar Petroleum.

Both were set up late in the program — Alcon in 2000, Fenar in 1999 — and almost immediately landed huge contracts to buy oil from Iraq (search). Both companies are registered only under the names of trustee firms, meaning their owners' names and nationalities were undisclosed.

According to the U.N.-ordered probe headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker (search), Alcon exported 2.01 percent — worth about $1.29 billion — of all oil exported under the program while Fenar took 1.84 percent, worth about $1.18 billion.

In comparison, major global oil companies which operated only in the early years of the 1996-2003 oil-for-food program bought much less. Shell Oil Corp., for example, took just 0.16 percent ($101 million worth), and BP PLC 0.10 percent ($62 million).

Major Western oil companies stopped contracting directly with the Iraqi government by early 2001 as kickback allegations mounted, a list of oil buyers provided by U.N. investigators shows. Several smaller firms like Alcon and Fenar then moved in.

Alcon has its registered headquarters in Ruggell, Liechtenstein. When contacted by The Associated Press, the company said it had traded Iraqi oil, but it was "never involved in illegal contracts." A spokesman, who declined to give his name, stressed that Alcon's contracts were "always prepared in accordance with the United Nations."

Fenar's registered headquarters are the offices of a trustee company in Schaan, Liechtenstein. A June 2002 contract between Fenar and the Iraqi oil ministry to buy 3 million barrels of crude oil, which was seen by the AP, named Fenar's contact as Musbah Ladki. A central London telephone number is listed for Ladki, but it rings unanswered. Fenar's listed telephone number is also in London, but the line has been disconnected.

In Liechtenstein, owners of limited liability companies like Alcon and Fenar do not have to disclose their names when they register their firms, thus guaranteeing their anonymity.

It's easier to track down the details of Swiss-registered companies involved in the Oil-for-Food investigation. But many of the firms are in liquidation or are owned by front companies in other offshore centers, compounding the difficulties Swiss investigators face in tracing them.

According to the inquiry led by Volcker, these are the top 10 countries that purchased oil from Iraq under the Oil-for-Food program from 1996 until 2003:

1. Russia $19.259 billion

2. France $4.394 billion

3. Switzerland $3.480 billion

4. Britain $3.380 billion

5. Turkey $3.343 billion

6. Italy $2.718 billion

7. China $2.625 billion

8. Liechtenstein $2.468 billion

9. Spain $1.644 billion

10. Malaysia $1.485 billion place at $482.826 million.