Annan pledges to aid in Oil-for-Food probe

Anne Gearan
The Guardian (UK)
December 16, 2004

Washington: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pledged full cooperation Thursday with investigations into alleged abuses in a U.N. oil and aid program that have led Republicans in Congress to demand his resignation. He said U.N. employees can be fired if they do not comply.

“We must get to the bottom of these allegations,” Annan said.

An independent inquiry headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker is “the most far-reaching in the history of the United Nations,” Annan said in a speech to the private Council on Foreign Relations.

“All U.N. staff have been instructed to cooperate or face disciplinary measures, including dismissal,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, Annan said the United Nations could beef up its preparations for the Iraqi elections scheduled for next month, but stopped short of a specific promise to do so. The Bush administration has been pushing Annan to do more, and Secretary of State Colin Powell gave understated praise for U.N. preparations so far.

“The U.N. effort seems to be on track in support of the Iraqi effort” to hold nationwide elections on Jan. 30, Powell said after a State Department meeting with Annan.

Iraqis themselves “have the principal responsibility,” Powell said.

Powell noted that the U.N. is taking the first steps to expand its presence in Iraq outside Baghdad to the cities of Basra and Irbil and has increased the number of election experts it will deploy in Iraq.

The United States is unlikely to be satisfied with the current commitment of 25 election monitors, but Powell did not say whether he has asked for a particular number of U.N. elections workers.

“We have enough people in there to do the work,” Annan said, as he stood with Powell. “And if need be, we’ll put in the staff we need to get the work done. It’s not a question of numbers; it’s a question of what you need to get the job done.”

Then Annan asked himself a question.

“Are we doing the job? Yes, we are doing the job,” he said.

The meeting with Powell was probably Annan’s last before Powell leaves the job next year. White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is Bush’s choice to replace Powell, and Annan also met with her Thursday.

Annan will not see Bush.

“I don’t feel snubbed,” Annan said.

“The president and I have met on many occasions, and we also do talk on the phone. And so I don’t feel that if I come to Washington and we don’t get the chance to meet, I should feel offended or snubbed. This is the nature of things.”

Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq in October 2003, after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Serge Vienna de Melee, and 21 others.

In August, the secretary-general allowed a small U.N. contingent to return to Baghdad and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers. The upper limit was recently raised to 59 and a U.S. spokesman said Wednesday the number of staffers currently in Iraq is “in that neighborhood.”

Bush sidestepped reporters’ questions earlier this month about whether Annan should resign because of allegations of fraud and corruption in the oil-for-food program, saying he was awaiting results of investigations of the program, but U.S. Ambassador John Danforth later said Annan has the Bush’s administration’s support.

“We are not suggesting or pushing for the resignation of the secretary-general,” Danforth said. “We have worked well with him in the past and look forward to working with him for some time in the future.”

The oil-for-food program allowed Saddam Hussein’s government to sell oil and use the revenue to buy food, medicine and other necessities. Investigations have found that Saddam skimmed billions of dollars from the program using bribes and kickbacks, some involving top U.N. and foreign government officials.

Annan’s son Kojo also worked for a company that had a contract in the oil-for-food program and received payments for years after his employment ended. He worked for the company in Africa, not Iraq.

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