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William Safire: Follow the money

By William Safire
Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times

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Why do you suppose France and Russia nations that for years urged the lifting of sanctions on oil production of Saddam's Iraq are now preventing an end to those U.N. sanctions on free Iraq?

Answer: the Chirac-Putin bedfellowship wants to maintain control of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program, under which Iraq was permitted to sell oil and ostensibly use the proceeds to buy food and medicine for its people. (In reality, Saddam skimmed a huge bundle and socked it away in Swiss, French and Asian banks.)

Iraqis now desperately need all that the country's oil production can buy. But Jacques Chirac cares little about reconstruction of basic services; he is more concerned about maintaining U.N. control that is, French veto control of Iraq's oil.

"Sophisticated international blackmail" is what Senator Arlen Specter called it yesterday. Blackmail is the apt word: unless the U.S. and Britain turn over primary control of Iraq to the U.N. none of this secondary "vital role" stuff Chiracism threatens to hobble oil sales and prevent recovery.

This extortion is greeted with hosannas by the thousand or more U.N. employees and contractors involved in the present oil-for-food setup, many beholden to France for their jobs. And so long as the U.N. bureaucracy handles the accounting, it is as if Arthur Andersen were back in business no questions are asked about who profits from the sanctions management.

My Kurdish friends, for example, who are entitled by U.N. resolution to 13 percent of the oil-for-food revenues, believe their four million people are owed billions in food and hospital supplies. I wonder: in what French banks is the money collected from past oil sales deposited? Is a competitive rate of interest being paid? Is that interest being siphoned off in "overhead" to pay other U.N. bills?

Colin Powell apparently believes that Chirac's new fondness for sanctions could tie up Iraqi oil production with litigation for years. His advice to President Bush is to pay the ransom but nibble away at the sanctions with limited resolutions. I think we should confront the extortion scheme head on and let Chirac use his veto to isolate France further.

What other money trails need to be followed? Few doubt that vast Iraqi assets have been secretly transferred out of the country for years, and especially in the prewar months. This is done through cut-outs, phony foundations, numbered accounts, intelligence proprietaries, leveraged currency speculation through proxies in unregulated hedge funds and a hundred other financial devices. Taken together, Saddam's huge haul is now terrorism's central bank account.

This kind of money moves not in satchels but over wires. Needed to root it out is a financial Javert. Bush and Tony Blair should create a task force of the best computer sleuths at Treasury, the exchequer, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Fed, Interpol and the Bank of England to ferret out the hidden billions that belong to the Iraqi people. (Here is how Admiral Poindexter can find gainful employment.)

Start with the 200,000 barrels a day of Kirkuk oil that Iraq smuggled to Syria, an illegal pipeline flow ignored by the U.N. but stopped recently by Secretary Rumsfeld.

Then follow the money: We know that President Bashar Assad turned an ophthalmologist's blind eye to Saddam's use of the Syrian port of Tartus to import missile fuel components from China and night-vision goggles from Russia. In return, Saddam sold Syria oil at a bargain price say, as little as $5 a barrel. That adds up to more than a billion bucks over a few years in Saddam's personal pocket, placed where?

Money recaptured from the Thief of Baghdad should be used to build new villages for those Arabs he transferred north in his campaign to ethnically cleanse Kirkuk of troublesome Kurds. That would allow a peaceful return of Kurds to their ancestral homes without displacing Arab or Turkmen families.

And here's the way the government of New Iraq can save some of the money it now loses by Russia's eager participation in blackmail in the Security Council: Declare that the $10 billion owed by Iraq under Saddam to Russia for unused tanks and planes will be repaid on the day Vladimir Putin repays the debt incurred by Russia under the czars.

William Safire is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

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