George Galloway confronted his accusers in the U.S. Senate Tuesday, denying any involvement in Iraqi oil trades and using the occasion to unleash an indictment of the war with a stunning ferocity. Galloway, the newly elected M.P. for Bethnal Green and Bow, was appearing before the Senate investigations subcommittee examining sanctions-busting oil deals in Iraq before the war.
In a lengthy preamble before his appearance, Senate staff presented a series of documents, enlarged and printed on huge white boards, which they said were Iraqi government memorandums naming Galloway as the recipient of highly lucrative allocations of cheap Iraqi oil under the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program.
Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican committee chairman who has taken the lead in making allegations against Galloway, repeatedly insisted that the hearing was "not a court of law." But the early stages were nothing if not lawyerly, with Coleman very much in the role of chief prosecutor. In a low, businesslike voice, the senator from Minnesota read out an indictment of Galloway running through the evidence against him.
"Senior Iraqi officials have confirmed that you, in fact, received oil allocations and that the documents that identify you as an allocation recipient are valid," Coleman said. "If you can provide any evidence that challenges the veracity of these documents or the statements of former Iraqi officials, we'd welcome that input."
Then it was the Respect Party leader's turn, and any sense of judicial propriety was instantly shattered. The courtroom became a vaudeville theater, as the M.P. lampooned his interrogators, accusing them of making "schoolboy howler" mistakes.
Galloway insisted that he was entirely innocent. "Senator, I am not now nor have I ever been an oil trader, and neither has anyone on my behalf," he declared, in language that deliberately echoed that of Joe McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunt conducted half a century ago just meters from the chamber used for Tuesday's hearing. "I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf," he said.
The wide, wood-paneled room was packed with journalists and spectators. A group of politics students stood at the back. The turnout among senators was less spectacular, however. Only four appeared for the start of the hearing. By the time Galloway took the microphone, there were only two left, Coleman and Carl Levin, the leading Democrat on the panel.
Witnesses in this august setting, a little below and surrounded by the horseshoe bench of powerful senators, are usually awed and almost always on the defensive. Galloway was on the attack from the first moment. He entered the hearing room with guns blazing, telling journalists his inquisitors were "crazed," "pro-war" "lickspittles" of the president, and predicting he would turn the tables on them. "I want to put these people on trial. This group of neocons is involved in the mother of smokescreens," he said.
That was the common theme in a feat of bare-knuckled rhetoric not often witnessed by U.S. senators, who are accustomed to considerably more reverence for their positions. CNN called it a "blistering attack on senators rarely heard or seen on Capitol Hill."
Galloway deflected every charge against him and flung it back at the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress. For example, he denied the committee's claim that he had met Saddam many times, asserting there had been only two such meetings -- and that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had met the then Iraqi president the same number of times, to sell arms, Galloway said.
"Now, you have nothing on me, senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad."
The senators mostly soaked up the punches, reserving judgment until a press conference later, when Coleman claimed Galloway's credibility was "very, very suspect." In the hearing, however, the senators struggled to pin down Galloway with Iraqi oil sales documents with his name on them.
"What counts is not the names on the paper; what counts is where is the money, Senator?" Galloway said. "Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars of money? The answer to that is nobody. And if you had anybody who ever paid me a penny, you would have produced them here today."
A jubilant Galloway later told an American television interviewer that his appearance marked a victory for the "British parliamentary style" over the more sedate Senate. Galloway used antiwar rhetoric far more raw than most politicians are accustomed to in America, where shared patriotism normally trumps outrage. He said that 100,000 people had paid with their lives for false assumptions on Iraq, "1,600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies, 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies."
In their cross-examination, the senators focused on Galloway's relationship with Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian businessmen with extensive dealings in prewar Iraq who served as chairman of and as principal contributor to Galloway's charity, the Ma-riam Appeal. They suggested Zureikat had been oil trading in his name and the M.P. must have known about it.
Once more, the accused sought to turn the tables on his accusers. When Coleman asked how he could have failed to be aware of Zureikat's oil deals, Galloway turned the attention to Coleman's campaign fundraising. He said: "Well, there's a lot of contributors, I've just been checking your Web site ..."
"Not many at that level, Mr. Galloway," the senator interjected.
"No, let me assure you there are," Galloway went on. "I've checked your Web site. There are lots of contributors to your political campaign funds -- I don't suppose you ask any of them how they made the money they give you."
Coleman stuck to his task. "If I can get back to Zureikat one more time, do you recall a time when you specifically had a conversation with him about oil dealings in Iraq?"
"I've already answered that question," Galloway replied. "I can assure you, Mr. Zureikat never gave me a penny from an oil deal, from a cake deal, from a bread deal or from any deal."
He danced around many of the questions, frequently responding, "I can do better than that" and answering a slightly different question. His biggest stumble came when he mistakenly assumed Sen. Levin had backed the war.
Levin's investigation of the U.S. government's own failure to police sanctions provided Galloway ammunition for his counterattack. But he made no more headway than his Republican counterpart in his cross-examination of the witness. When Levin invited Galloway to say whether he was alleging the documentary evidence was forged, the British M.P. replied: "Well, I have no way of knowing, sir."
"That's fine. So you're not alleging," Levin persisted.
"I have no way of knowing."
"Is it fair to say, since you don't know, you're not alleging?"
"Well, it would have been nice to have seen it before today," Galloway said.
The minuet of exchanges played on for a few more minutes before the senators gave up frustrated. They had come equipped for a trial and found themselves in the role of stooges for a man accustomed to playing to the gallery.