Expanding investigation

The GOP turns up the heat on the oil-for-food scandal, a move that could derail Kofi Annan's efforts to reform the U.N.

Published May 13, 2005 6:24PM (EDT)

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is fighting for his job in the face of an increasing campaign by Republican congressmen, who have launched a series of investigations into the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.

Annan faces three separate congressional investigations into the oil-for-food program, and a U.N. Security Council source said a further four are pending.

George W. Bush's Republican Party is hostile toward the U.N. in general but Annan in particular, especially after he last year declared that the war in Iraq was illegal.

Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican senator whose committee Thursday published a report naming George Galloway, the British M.P. for the antiwar Respect Party, and Charles Pasqua, the former French minister, in connection with the oil-for-food scandal, has called on Annan to resign. Coleman also hinted that the United States could withhold its funding, which he said amounted to about 22 percent of the U.N.'s total budget.

Annan, who was badly undermined by revelations that his son Kojo was paid by a company that secured a lucrative U.N. contract for Iraq, is refusing to resign. He is due to retire in December 2006. If Annan does not resign before then, the United States will try to ensure that the next appointee, who is due to be chosen from Asia, will be in the American camp.

Coleman's inquiry is being conducted by the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations. Separate inquiries are being carried out by the House Committee on International Relations, led by the Republican Henry Hyde, and the House subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations, headed by Christopher Shays, another Republican.

These come on top of an internal U.N. inquiry ordered last year by Annan and headed by Paul Volcker, who has already issued two interim reports and is due to publish his final report in the summer. A spokeswoman for Volcker said Thursday the timetable could slip and that a decision on a publication date was "not yet on the horizon." The two interim reports by Volcker have been extremely damaging to Annan, criticizing his officials as well as Kojo.

The inquiry is into the program in which Saddam Hussein was allowed to sell limited quantities of oil in return for food between 1996 and 2003. Various companies and individuals are alleged to have benefited from illegal payments.

As long as only Volcker was involved, Annan could contain the row, and U.N. officials hoped publication of Volcker's report would mark an end to the affair. But with Republican congressmen piling in, Annan faces month after month of rows and allegations.

U.N. officials admitted Thursday that a clash between the world organization and the U.S. Congress has put in jeopardy a program of reforms on which Annan has staked his reputation. Heads of government are due in New York in September to ratify the reform package, including expansion of the Security Council, which would amount to the biggest overhaul of the U.N. since its founding in 1945.

But relations between the U.N. and Congress have deteriorated sharply in the last week over the oil-for-food program, to the extent that a U.S. federal judge has been called upon to intervene.

One U.N. official admitted that Annan, who wanted the reforms to be his legacy, is being "distracted" by issue. The official said it is now possible that Annan will not achieve in September anything other than minimal changes, and that the grandiose plan for increasing the Security Council from 15 members to 25 will be shelved.

A U.N. official close to Annan acknowledged that the publication of Volker's report will not end the controversy. "Yes, that is true. It isn't over with Volcker," the official said. He added that Annan had said the disclosures about the oil-for-food program had been embarrassing but that he was determined to press ahead. Asked at a recent press conference if he was considering resigning, Annan said: "Hell, no."

The U.N. official said that if relations between the United States and the U.N. continue to deteriorate at the present speed, he fears Congress will once again impose a freeze on U.S. funding of the organization, as it did 15 years ago. The official said: "We are doing all we can to give them the information they need. We hope it will have a sensible ending. There were mistakes [in the oil-for-food program] but not gross corruption -- just minor."

By Ewen MacAskill

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