Global Policy Forum

Britain "Turned Blind Eye" to Iraq Oil Smuggling


By Philip Sherwell

April 17, 2005

Britain made "no serious attempt" to block lucrative oil smuggling operations by Saddam Hussein because enforcement of Iraqi sanctions was not a "top priority" for the Government, a former senior British diplomat said yesterday. Carne Ross, the Foreign Office official responsible for handling Britain's Iraq policy at the United Nations between 1998 and 2002, spoke to The Telegraph as a row escalated between London and the UN over the debacle of the oil-for-food programme.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, had earlier angrily denied claims by Kofi Annan, the beleaguered UN Secretary General, that Britain and America turned a blind eye to Iraqi oil trafficking to Turkey and Jordan, the West's allies in the region. Mr Ross said: "We talked a great deal about stopping oil smuggling, but there was never any concerted attempt by the UK or US on the ground to prevent breaches of sanctions.

"A blind eye was, de facto, turned to the smuggling. It was not condoned, but there was a policy of drift. As a government, we did not make a sustained effort to stop it. It was not a top priority." Mr Annan is fighting to save his job after stinging criticism of his handling of the oil-for-food programme. His comments appeared designed to spread the blame after US prosecutors detailed bribes allegedly paid to a senior UN official on Baghdad's behalf in 1993 while the terms of the programme were being negotiated with Iraq.

Saddam is thought to have skimmed up to $4 billion from kickbacks on the UN scheme, set up in 1995 to allow Iraq to import food and medicines in return for authorised oil sales. It is estimated he may have made a further $14 billion from illicit oil deals.

Mr Straw, who has previously backed Mr Annan in the face of calls for him to step down, responded tersely to the Secretary-General's comments. "I regret to say that suggestions that the United Kingdom ignored smuggling of oil from Iraq to Jordan and Turkey are inaccurate," he said, adding that Britain was "consistently in the lead in seeking to enforce the sanctions against Iraq".

Mr Straw also blamed other unnamed Security Council members for their "ambiguous approach" to sanctions, thought to be a reference to France and Russia, which had strong commercial interests with Saddam's regime and hindered efforts to block illegal trade with Iraq. Mr Ross said, however, that Britain's vigorous diplomatic efforts at the UN were not matched by policy on the ground. "We never had a strategy in place to stop this," said Mr Ross, who quit the Foreign Office last year in disagreement with Government policy on Iraq.

"We did not turn a deliberate blind eye, but there was no serious attempt to stop the smuggling. We never put serious pressure on Jordan or Turkey or the Gulf states. There was a lot of talk, but not much action." Mr Ross said that, in practice, the sanctions often took second place to other diplomatic priorities. "Sanctions enforcement was bottom of the agenda," he said.

The US State Department has acknowledged that sanctions were waived for regional allies, apparently undermining Mr Straw's assertion that Britain did not ignore smuggling to Jordan and Turkey. Nonetheless, the US also took exception to the tenor of Mr Annan's comments last week. "There is a fundamental difference between oil smuggling which was happening without our knowledge, and the very public waiver which was granted to some countries," said Richard Grenell, the US spokesman at the UN.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on the Oil-for-Food Programme


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