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Bush: U.N. must come clean on Iraq oil scandal

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush Thursday called for a “full and open” accounting of the U.N. oil-for-food program but would not say whether he thought U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan should resign.

“I look forward to the full disclosure of the facts (to) get an honest appraisal of that which went on,” he said. “And it’s important for the integrity of the organization to have a full and open disclosure of all that took place with the oil-for-food program.”

Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who is investigating corruption in the oil-for-food program, Wednesday called on Annan to resign. He said former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein reaped some $21.3 billion from the program because of Annan’s lack of oversight.

But Bush sidestepped the issue of whether Annan, whose son has been identified as having received payments from a contractor for the oil-for-food program, should resign.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli also dodged the question at a briefing on Wednesday, saying, “That is not something, frankly, that is in front of us.”

Annan still has wide support
Outside of Coleman’s call, the secretary-general appears to retain wide support among the 191 U.N. member states who elected him to a second five-year term in 2001.

Russia, Britain, Chile, Spain and other nations on the U.N. Security Council strongly backed Annan in recent days, as did non-council members. The 54 African nations sent a letter of support.

“He has heard no calls for resignation from any member state,” U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters when asked whether he envisioned Annan’s stepping down. “If there’s some agitation on this issue on the sidelines ... that’s healthy debate. But he is intent on continuing his substantive work for the remaining two years and one month of his term.”

But Coleman said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show that Annan should voluntarily step down because what he termed the "biggest scandal" in U.N. history occurred on his watch.

“No one would ask Ken Lay to reform Enron. You can’t ask Kofi Annan to reform the United Nations,” he said.

Annan was affecting a business-as-usual attitude. On Wednesday he urged Wall Street financiers to support the global campaign against AIDS. On Thursday he was focusing on a report by a high-level panel recommending the most extensive reform of the United Nations since its founding in 1945.

A growing scandal
The allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program, which first surfaced in January, have escalated, embarrassing Annan and taking the spotlight off his agenda.

Two weeks ago, Coleman’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said it had uncovered evidence that Saddam’s government raised more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue by subverting U.N. sanctions against Iraq, including the oil-for-food program.

On Monday, Annan said he was “very disappointed and surprised” that his son Kojo received payments until February 2004 from a firm that had a contract with the oil-for-food program. The Swiss-based firm Cotecna Inspection S.A., said Kojo Annan was paid $2,500 a month to prevent him from working for competitors after he left the company in 1998.

Annan said he understood “the perception problem for the U.N.,” but he reiterated that he has never been involved in granting contracts to Cotecna or anyone else.

The secretary-general has appointed former U.S. Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker to head an independent inquiry into the oil-for-food program. He handed over all U.N. documents and ordered U.N. officials to cooperate.

U.N. probe won't share documents
Volcker wrote to Coleman two weeks ago to say his investigation won’t share documents until its own reports are issued starting in January. Coleman said this was another factor in asking for Annan’s resignation.

Coleman wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece Wednesday that “as long as Mr. Annan remains in charge, the world will never be able to learn the full extent of the bribes, kickbacks and under-the-table payments that took place under the U.N.’s collective nose.”

The oil-for-food program, which began in 1996, permitted Iraq to sell oil, provided that the revenue went for food, medicine and other necessities. At the time, Iraq was under tough U.N. economic penalties.

Ereli said the State Department believes that Congress has a right to investigate. But he added that Annan “has been working positively and cooperatively” in trying to find out what happened.

Eckhard reiterated that until the Volcker investigation is completed, the secretary-general “will not rush to judgment, and he urges others not to rush to judgment either.”

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Yuri Fedotov told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday that criticism of Annan “is without foundation.” Chile’s U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Munoz said “we trust his leadership.”

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said his country “gives its full support to the multilateral system, to the United Nations and to its secretary-general.”

Annan also got strong support at a meeting Wednesday with the ambassadors of Argentina, Algeria, Colombia, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Spain and Turkey.