Iraq's Odious Debts

Saddam ‘spills the beans’ on hidden millions

Luke Harding and Justin McCurry
The Guardian (U.K.)
December 30, 2004

Saddam Hussein has started “cooperating” with his American interrogators and has admitted hiding millions of dollars in secret international bank accounts, a senior member of Iraq’s governing council said last night. After more than two weeks in US custody, the former dictator has told investigators the names of people who know where the money is, according to Iyad Alawi, the head of the Iraqi National Accord, one of the country’s political parties.

“Saddam has started to give information on money that has been looted from Iraq and deposited abroad,” Mr Alawi told the London-based Arab newspapers al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat. “Investigation is now concentrated on his relationship with terrorist organisations and on the money paid to elements outside Iraq.”

The US-appointed council believes the former president accumulated as much as $40bn (£22.5bn) during his years in power, which he hid in accounts in Switzerland, Japan, Germany and other countries.

According to Mr Alawi, Saddam has also given information on the whereabouts of arms and ammunition depots supplying the resistance.

Last night Mr Alawi’s spokesman said the former leader had revealed “many secrets”.

“Saddam is cooperating with his investigators,” Ali Abdul Amir told the Guardian. “He has given many important details. They include links between his regime and foreign politicians.”

The ex-president had so far refused to talk about weapons of mass destruction, he added. Asked how he knew all this, he replied: “We have our sources.” He went on: “These are not only American. We also have good links with the British.”

The governing council has asked international lawyers to try to track down the missing millions, Mr Alawi says.

The claim came after Japan agreed yesterday to forgive the “vast majority” of Iraqi debt following a visit to Tokyo by the US special envoy, James Baker. Mr Baker completed the final leg of an unexpectedly successful tour to persuade creditor countries to waive Iraq’s huge debts and help to rebuild its economy.

Japan is owed $4.1bn, making it the biggest creditor. In the past it suggested it would insist on Iraq repaying in full with earnings from oil revenues. No figures were mentioned yesterday, but the country said it was willing to offer substantial debt relief as part of an agreement among members of the Paris Club, an informal group of 19 creditor states that are owed $40bn.

Iraq also owes $80bn to other countries and individuals.

“Japan is committed to provide substantial debt reduction for Iraq in the Paris Club in 2004,” the Japanese foreign ministry said in a statement issued after Mr Baker met the prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. “Japan would be prepared to eliminate the vast majority of its Iraqi debt if other Paris Club creditors are prepared to do so.”

It is not clear whether the relief will include interest arrears and penalties, which would bring the total debt to around $7.7bn.

The US administration welcomed the decision. “This very forthcoming position is further evidence of Mr Koizumi’s and Japan’s global leadership on Iraqi reconstruction,” a White House spokesman said.

Japanese officials said Mr Koizumi had expressed concern at the size of Iraq’s debts but believed priority should be placed on reconstruction.

Despite opposition within his administration, the Japanese leader, a staunch supporter of US policy in Iraq, appears to have been swayed by other creditor countries’ positive responses to US overtures.

Mr Baker, who described the meeting with Mr Koizumi as “exceedingly good”, immediately flew to Beijing for talks with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao. According to the Xinhua news agency, Mr Wen told the envoy that China would consider reducing the debts owed to it by Iraq “out of humanitarian concern”.

Beijing says Saddam’s regime owed it $1.1 bn before the first Gulf war in 1991, but there is uncertainty over the current figure.

This month Mr. Baker reached agreements on debt relief with several European countries, including France and Germany, both opponents of the war who were angry after the US froze them out of bidding for Iraqi construction contracts worth $18bn.

A few days later the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, told Mr Baker he was willing to start negotiations to relieve Iraq’s $3.5bn debt to Moscow.

But Mr. Baker cancelled a visit to South Korea after it indicated that it would be unwilling to write off Iraq’s $1.9bn debt, including $1.1m owed to the construction and engineering firm Hyundai.

There were fears, too, that the US envoy, a close friend of President George Bush, would be greeted by embarrassing demonstrations by opponents of the Iraq war.

Iraq debt deals

Britain debt is $2bn. The UK has agreed the need to reduce Iraq’s debt.

China debt estimated at $1.1bn in 1990. Considering forgiving part of it.

France About $3bn owed. France agrees to unspecified amount being written off.

Germany The German chancellor said he was open to forgive part of Iraq’s debt, which totals $5.4bn.

Italy Owed $1.73bn (excluding interest). Backs plan to relieve Iraq’s debt.

Japan Tokyo is owed around $7bn and promises to forgive “vast majority” of debt if other Paris Club countries do the same.

Russia Ready to write off 65% or $5.2bn of the $8bn Baghdad owes it.

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