SOFIA, Bulgaria – Oil bribes to foreign officials and businesses were "standard practices" under Saddam Hussein's (search) regime, Iraq's foreign minister said Thursday.
But those who reportedly took bribes — including Russian businesses that sold his oil, humanitarian organizations and even a priest — denied the allegations. Some said the claims were revenge for opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq that ousted Saddam from power.
Iraq's Al-Mada daily published a list of 270 former Cabinet officials, legislators, political activists and journalists from more than 46 countries allegedly involved in the scam. Members of the provisional Iraqi government and opponents of Saddam have since distributed a list of the accused, based on documents from the Iraqi Oil Ministry (search).
The paper said they are suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales that Saddam allegedly offered in exchange for political and popular support in their countries.
"Saddam's regime used to win over favors by offering oil bribes," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (search) said in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. "These were standard practices of Saddam's regime."
Zebari refused to say if the new Iraqi government has evidence to back up the allegations. He dismissed the idea that the names were published to punish opponents of the war, and distanced his government from the list.
"As foreign minister of Iraq, I cannot deny or confirm this report because officially nothing has come out from government sources," he said in English. Zebari, a Kurd, was a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party in northern Iraq when Saddam was in power, and never a member of Saddam's government.
Most of the nearly 50 Russian groups on the list are oil companies, but government agencies, individuals, political parties and the Russian Orthodox Church (search) also were named. The groups insisted the sales were legitimate and covered by the U.N.-sponsored oil-for-food program.
"We did participate in the U.N. oil-for-food program, and all deals were done in the framework of that program," said Dmitry Pantelyev, spokesman for Russia's state-owned Rosneft oil company, which is on the list.
The program allowed Baghdad to sell oil and buy food and other basic imports despite U.N. economic sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Under the program, the United Nations set a ceiling on the amount of oil that Saddam was allowed to export, but left it up to Saddam to set the price and who would get the contracts.
The bulk went to Russian firms as part of Saddam's bid to maintain good ties with the Kremlin, which argued heartily against the U.S.-led invasion.
Russia's Communist Party, listed as the third-largest recipient of Iraqi oil vouchers, denied receiving bribes. The Russian Orthodox Church also denied the allegations.
Many others on the list also denied the claims: India's Congress Party, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov's Socialist Party, the president of the Italian region of Lombardy, and Fritz Edlinger, general secretary of the Arab-Austrian Association in Vienna, Austria.
"It's the other way around — we spend up to about euro700,000 ($875,000) a year on our humanitarian projects," that include funding a children's cancer hospital in Basra, Edlinger said.
He called the charges a "political measure against those who were critical of the war and the politics of the United States and Britain."
The list even included a priest who heads the nonprofit Committee for Iraq. Father Benjamin, in Assisi, Italy, ejected allegations he took 4.5 million barrels of oil.
"After having dedicated a number of years to dangerous and tiring work to support the Iraqi people, ... to be denigrated in such a fashion, with such vulgar slanders, shows once more how infinite is the wickedness of those who in truth are now interested in Iraqi oil," Father Benjamin said.