A prominent British politician linked to illegal payments in the Iraq oil-for-food program told U.S. senators Tuesday that their investigation was “the mother of all smoke screens” to divert attention from “the real scandal": U.S. policy in Iraq.
British legislator George Galloway is among several foreign politicians whom the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations accused last week of receiving options to buy discounted Iraqi oil in return for helping Saddam Hussein’s regime evade United Nations sanctions. The holders of such options could sell them to oil traders at a profit. Former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and Russian lawmaker Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky were also named. All three have denied wrongdoing.
But Galloway, an outspoken critic of the sanctions on Iraq and the U.S.-led invasion of the country, was the only one who traveled to Washington to defend himself. He testified under oath and without immunity but used harsh language that shook up the typically staid hearing room.
Galloway described the committee chairman, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, as a “pro-war, neocon hawk and the lickspittle of George W. Bush” who, he said, sought revenge against anyone who did not support the invasion of Iraq.
“Now, I know that standards have slipped in the last few years in Washington, but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice,” he said, accusing Coleman of not giving him a chance to respond to the charges before circulating the committee’s report. “I am here today, but last week you already found me guilty.”
Last week, Coleman released a report charging that Galloway had received oil allocations of 20 million barrels from 2000 to 2004 and had a Jordanian associate, Fawaz Zureikat, sell the oil and funnel the revenue through a charity.
The report also says that former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz confirmed that Galloway was on their list of friends to be rewarded.
Galloway denied trading oil or having anyone trade it on his behalf and questioned the validity of any information extracted from a prisoner facing war crimes charges, “knowing what the world knows about how you treat prisoners,” he said.
“Now, you have nothing on me, senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad,” he told Coleman.
Asked what he had accomplished at the hearing, Galloway told a reporter he thought he had served as a reminder that the war was wrongheaded.
“Most people think the real villains of the piece in Iraq are not [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan and [French President Jacques] Chirac but here in Washington and in the White House and in the Republican majority,” he said.
After the hearing, Coleman said that “nothing was said today that at all discounted the veracity, the reliability of those documents that were affirmed by senior Iraqi officials.”
Both Coleman and Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said it was “simply not credible” that Galloway -- who described himself as a “dear friend” of Aziz, one of three Iraqi officials, according to Coleman, who selected the contract recipients -- did not know that his partner and the man who funded his campaign against the war was making oil deals with Hussein.
“If in fact he lied to the committee, there will have to be consequences,” Coleman said.
The Senate panel had more detailed documentation on other implicated politicians. The report states that Pasqua, now a French senator, was allocated 11 million barrels of oil.
On Monday in Paris, Pasqua repeated his denial that he had received anything in such transactions and pointed out that his name disappeared from the list when his advisor, Bernard Guillet, began receiving allocations in 2000.
“If my name appears in certain Iraqi documents, that can only be the result of fraudulent behavior on the part of certain people who have used my name,” he said.
French authorities arrested Guillet in April for money laundering and influence peddling related to the U.N.'s oil-for-food program.
The Senate committee issued a separate report on prominent Russian politicians who allegedly received Iraqi oil rights. President Vladimir V. Putin’s former chief of staff, Alexander S. Voloshin, and the presidential council received oil rights worth nearly $3 million in exchange for working to lift U.N. sanctions, the report charges.
It also says that Zhirinovsky, a prominent ultranationalist politician, received rights to buy 75 million barrels of oil.
Zhirinovsky reportedly boasted that his party was responsible for helping lift Russia’s sanctions against Iraq. Investigators pointed out that Iraq rewarded Russia with extra allocations after it blocked a U.N. Security Council attempt to tighten sanctions in the spring of 2001.
But Coleman did not directly say that Russia’s pro-Iraq policy was a result of the oil awards or that any country had changed its policy because of individuals’ reported allocations. “We’re just presenting the facts,” he said.
Coleman said the subcommittee would hold hearings on U.N. reform in the fall.
Farley reported from the United Nations and Neuman from Washington. Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Moscow contributed to this report.