Russia Lukewarm About UN Probe into Oil-for-Food Program

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Russia says a United Nations plan to investigate allegations of corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq should not overshadow more pressing issues relating to Iraq.

Moscow has been especially wary about plans to probe the graft claims, which have implicated almost 50 Russian oil companies, government agencies, political parties, and even the Russian Orthodox Church.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov said Moscow respected U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan's decision to set up an independent inquiry into media allegations of corruption in the program, the Interfax news agency reported.

But, he added, "We do not think that this historical [backward-looking] inquiry should become a priority of the U.N. Security Council" or overshadow more important things such as the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement several hours after Fedotov spoke, welcoming Annan's decision but also including the caveat that a "just and sustainable" settlement for Iraq was a more important issue for the UN than the probe.

Russia was among Iraq's largest partners in the oil-for-food program, under which Baghdad - subjected to U.N. sanctions - was allowed to sell stipulated amounts of oil in exchange for food and humanitarian assistance.

Some Russian companies are still working on contracts related to rebuilding the country's infrastructure and linked to the oil-for-food program.

Earlier this year an Iraqi newspaper published a list of more than 250 firms and individuals which it said were suspected of having profited illegally from the oil-for-food program. They included 46 Russian entities, firms and individuals.

Moscow at the time dismissed the claims that Russian oil companies had taken bribes from the Saddam Hussein regime, saying the reports were based on misunderstandings about how the oil-for-food program worked.

Under the U.N. program, 11 Russian companies bought tens of million barrels of oil from Iraq.

The purchases were coordinated by the Russian state oil company, Zarubezhneft, whose representatives have insisted that it carried out the contracts in strict compliance with the applicable U.N. resolutions.

Zarubezhneft received U.N. permission to drill 45 exploratory wells in the northern Kirkuk oil field, and also had a contract to drill some 100 wells in another field, North Rumaila.

The corporation continues to fulfill 10 oil-for-food contracts, worth a total of $72 million dollars, and due to be completed this year.

In his statements Thursday, Fedotov also said a new Security Council may be needed before the June 30 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to a provisional Iraqi government.

He said the details of the transition of power should be determined at an international conference, attended by Iraqi politicians, representatives of neighboring countries, and the members of the Security Council.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.