NEW YORK – Saddam Hussein (search) and his regime chose hundreds of foreign companies to do business with under the United Nation's oil-for-food program. Investigators believe the companies were selected because they or their governments were willing to back Saddam against international isolation and sanctions.
The list of the foreign companies approved by Saddam, obtained exclusively by FOX News, spells out that Russian and Saudi Arabian companies were the big winners in the scheme, which was beset by bribes and kickbacks:
— 109 Saudi Arabian companies are listed on a document titled Exempted Arab and Foreign Companies for importing all items. One Saudi company is described as a Mercedes-Benz dealership.
— 33 Russian companies are listed. One of those is further broken down into 250 company names, possibly subsidiaries.
Sen. Norm Coleman (search), R-Minn., who chairs the Senate committee investigating the oil-for-food program, told FOX News that progress is being made.
"We've got tons of documents. ... We're going to follow the money. There's $10 billion that Saddam siphoned away. ... We're looking at American companies and others from other nations," Coleman said Thursday.
Under the U.N. program, now mired in scandal, these companies should have been importing food, medicines and humanitarian supplies for the Iraqi people. But critics charge that millions — if not billions — of dollars were diverted into the bank accounts of Saddam and others.
There are no American companies listed, and only a few Western European companies, but the lists are not necessarily complete. For example, the French were known to be heavily involved in the oil-for-food program but no French names appear on the list. Investigators also point out that many of the names on this list may simply be front companies.
Investigators say Saddam, through this list, was able to control what goods came into Iraq and how they were used. As one congressional investigator said: "What were the U.N.'s humanitarian aid coordinators, on the ground in Baghdad, doing while this was going on?"
"This is serious stuff but it's going to take a little while" to complete an investigation, Coleman said.
Coleman said the committee is moving forward with the investigation in two ways: issuing subpoenas to the French bank who handled transactions and sending a series of chairmen's letters signed by Coleman and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asking the companies and Iraqis for information.
When asked if his efforts were being blocked by U.N. or U.S. officials, Coleman said he's "not prepared to say that" and that the "State Department has been helpful."
"I talked to [former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul] Volcker and he knows what he has to do. ... We will get to the bottom of this. We will follow the money."
The United Nations (search) authorized an independent investigation into the matter and appointed a three-member panel led by Volcker. The panel does not have subpoena authority and will rely instead on voluntary cooperation from governments, U.N. staff, members of Saddam's former government and current Iraqi leaders.
The panel has said it has evidence that dozens of people, including top U.N. officials, took kickbacks from the $67 billion oil-for-food program.
The General Accounting Office (search), the U.S. Congress' investigative arm, estimated in March that the Iraqi government pocketed $5.7 billion by smuggling oil to its neighbors and $4.4 billion by extracting kickbacks on otherwise legitimate contracts.
Under the oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and officially ended in November 2003, Saddam's government could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and toward reparations to 1991 Gulf War victims.
FOX News' Jonathan Hunt contributed to this report.