Saddam's ministers admit using oil to reward Russian officials

Former top officials from Saddam Hussein's government told U.S. congressional investigators they provided millions of dollars worth of oil allocations as a form of pay-off to Russian leaders in hopes of ending U.N. sanctions against Iraq, a congressional panel said.

Hussein's vice president, Taha Yasin Ramadan, told investigators that the allocations were "compensation for support," the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigations subcommittee said in a report being released Monday.

The investigators said their interviews and documents from the former Iraqi government add to evidence in previous investigations linking Russian officials to abuses in the U.N. oil-for-food program. Among the officials that have been implicated are Alexander Voloshin, former chief of staff to President Vladimir Putin, and ultranationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Russia's foreign ministry declined comment on the report, saying it would be "unethical to make any statements" until a U.N.-appointed commission investigating the oil-for-food program releases its third and likely final report this summer.

Mikhail Troyansky, deputy chief of Foreign Ministry's information department, said Russia has been cooperating with that investigation, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

The congressional panel's findings were released ahead of a hearing Tuesday on Saddam's use of oil vouchers to reward supporters. The vouchers allowed the bearer to buy Iraqi oil at cut-rate prices and could be sold for a profit. Saddam also demanded kickbacks from the oil transactions.

"This is the way Saddam used oil-for-food to line his own pocket and to curry political favor," said Sen. Norm Coleman, the subcommittee chairman.

The panel also released documents last week claiming that former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and British politician George Galloway also accepted allocations. Both deny the charges.

Galloway has announced he would appear at Tuesday's hearing to defend himself. Coleman said Galloway has not contacted the committee and said he would have to testify under oath if he does so.

Coleman's subcommittee is one of several congressional panels investigating abuses in the $64 billion (Ђ50.65 billion) program, which allowed Saddam's government to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian items.

Coleman said he has not reached any conclusion about whether Secretary-General Kofi Annan should have been aware of the abuses of vouchers, but he repeated his call for Annan to resign. "It's a matter of accountability," he said.

The latest reports by the committee deal with allocations given to Zhirinovsky, Voloshin and Sergey Issakov, an aide to Voloshin. Committee staff said they interviewed 16 top former Iraqi officials, but identified only two: Ramadan and Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister.

It said the Russian Presidential Council led by Voloshin received allocations worth more than $16 million, according to Iraq's oil ministry.

The committee said Zhirinovsky received allocations worth $8.7 million (Ђ6.89 million). On six occasions, he sold allotments to the Texas oil company Bayoil, whose owner, David B. Chalmers, has been indicted on charges related to the oil-for-food scandal.

The committee said about 30 percent of the oil sold in the oil-for-food program was allocated to Russia, even though Russia is an oil-exporting country.

Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie said the Russian government should support efforts to learn the truth about the country's relationship with Saddam and "that any wrongful action should be identified."

Asked if he believed Russia had been bought off by the Iraqi regime, he said, "I wouldn't put it in these terms."

"I would say that there were certainly commercial and political interests involved and Russia behaved like any other state in looking after itself," Sumaidaie said.

KEN GUGGENHEIM, Associated Press Writer

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