An independent commission will investigate allegations that United Nations staff collected millions of dollars in illegal profits from the program that allowed Iraq to sell some of its oil to pay for food during the years of economic sanctions.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) announced plans Friday for an independent commission that would go beyond an internal United Nations probe of alleged corruption and mismanagement in the oil-for-food program.

Annan made the announcement in a letter to the Security Council (search).

The world organization has been hit with allegations that U.N. staff may have reaped millions of dollars from the oil-for-food program that helped Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions.

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

"Hopefully the U.N. can build upon our work in looking at the books," said Jeff Nelligan, spokesman for the U.S. General Accounting Office (search).

The U.N. chief said in the letter he wants "an independent, high-level inquiry to investigate the allegations relating to the administration and management of the program, including allegations of fraud and corruption."

Annan's letter didn't elaborate on how an independent probe would be handled. He said he would address this in a further letter.

"I think we need to have an independent investigation, an investigation that can be as broad as possible to look into all these allegations which have been made and get to the bottom of this because I don't think we need to have our reputation impugned," Annan said.

Annan indicated he didn't need security council approval for the probe, but said he wanted its support.

The oil-for-food program was established by the U.N. Security Council in December 1996 to help the Iraqi population cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The program, which 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.

Annan's decision followed publication in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada of a list of about 270 former Cabinet officials, legislators, political activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales.

The United Nations has already sent two letters to the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition requesting evidence of corruption in the program — the latest a week ago.

In late January, the Governing Council asked the country's Oil Ministry to gather information on allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime bribed prominent foreigners with oil money to back his government.