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British lawmaker spars with Senate panel over oil trading
McClatchy Newspapers


May 19, 2005

Washington - A member of the British Parliament on Tuesday called a Senate inquiry "the mother of all smokescreens," denying accusations he had profited from a United Nations oil-for-food scheme in Iraq.

The British lawmaker, George Galloway, was met with skepticism from Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, as well as from Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat.

"It strains any concept of reasonableness for him to assert that he didn't know, or wouldn't answer the question, whether his named representative in Iraq was involved in trading for oil," Coleman said.

The public sparring was part of an unusual appearance in Congress by Galloway, one of Britain's foremost opponents of the war in Iraq. He flew to Washington to answer allegations that he accepted paper vouchers for millions of barrels of Iraqi oil - which could be resold at immense profit - in exchange for opposing U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Galloway, an outspoken critic of British Prime Minster Tony Blair, a U.S. war ally, likened Coleman to a "schoolboy howler," making allegations against him he said had no basis in fact.

Galloway contended that the charges are a diversion from the actions of U.S. companies such as Texas-based Bayoil, which has been indicted for paying millions of dollars for the right to sell embargoed Iraqi oil. He also said it is a distraction from the continuing insurgency that has pinned down U.S. troops in Iraq, and the more than $8 billion in contract dollars that have gone missing during the U.S. occupation.

Coleman, who supports the war in Iraq, avoided debating Galloway. He chose instead to walk the British lawmaker through a half-dozen Iraqi oil-for-food records purporting to show his name or that of his appointed representative, Middle East businessman Fawaz Zuraiqat.

"They show Galloway was the allocation (voucher) holder, and I don't think he did anything to challenge that," Coleman said.

Galloway suggested that the documents could be forgeries, backed up by jailed regime officials, including former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, who told committee investigators that the vouchers were "compensation for support."

Previous press accounts of Galloway's dealings in Iraq were found to be based on forged documents. But Coleman said his committee's reports are based on different records, backed up by former regime officials with no reason to lie.

"They were not pointing fingers or naming names for leniency," Coleman said. "They thought they did nothing wrong."

In an opening statement intended to echo the era of the anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy, Galloway said, "I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader."

But Galloway could not say the same for Zuraiqat, a close friend and top campaign contributor.

"He may well have signed an oil contract. It had nothing to do with me," Galloway said.

Coleman and Levin expressed incredulity at Galloway's contention that he never asked Zuraiqat if he traded in oil.

Documents made public by the committee identify Zuraiqat as Galloway's Iraq representative in the children's leukemia charity Zuraiqat helped form, called Mariam's Appeal.

Mariam's Appeal, along with several of Zuraiqat's company names, are listed on records documenting allocations worth 20 million barrels of oil from 2000 to 2003. Committee investigators have suggested that the leukemia charity was a cover to conceal oil payments. But the committee has produced no financial records so far to document specific payments to Galloway or to Mariam's Appeal.

The voucher records are part of a report the committee released last week accusing Galloway and former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua of profiting from the U.N. oil-for-food vouchers, many of which ended up in the hands of foreign politicians and journalists who showed sympathy for Saddam's regime.

A follow-up report released Monday by the committee's Democrats also alleges that the Bush administration looked the other way as Bayoil, the indicted Texas energy firm, paid Saddam's government $37 million in illegal kickbacks to trade in Iraqi oil.

Coleman and Levin have asked administration officials for a more detailed account of the transactions, as well as of a separate Iraqi oil shipment to Jordan on the eve of the war, apparently with the approval of Defense and State department officials.

In yet another report released over the weekend, the committee said several Russian leaders also have received millions of dollars in Iraqi oil allocations from Saddam's government in hopes of weakening U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

Among the officials the committee implicated are Alexander Voloshin, former chief of staff to President Vladimir Putin, and ultranationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Coleman has cited the revelations to back up his call for the resignation of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who he says should be held accountable for the widespread abuses of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program.

The program was set up by the United Nations to let Saddam's government sell oil in exchange for humanitarian goods during the period of U.N. sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War.

Since then, a number of investigations, including Coleman's, have found that Saddam used the $64 billion program to peddle influence with officials in the U.N. and in foreign governments.


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