Cleaning Off a Tarred UN

The timing couldn't be worse for a United Nations scandal. Just when the world body is taking the lead in forming a new government in Iraq, it's being probed for alleged corruption in the order of billions of dollars.

And in fact, the charges against the UN and a few Security Council members relate to its last big project in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was still in power.

The scandal casts doubt on the UN's ability to pick new leaders and hold elections in Iraq. Its effectiveness in those tasks will depend in part on how quickly its officials clear the air by cooperating with investigators.

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Several probes are in progress.

The latest one, by a House of Representatives committee, starts Wednesday. A Senate panel began an inquiry earlier this month. Congress's financial watchdog, the General Accounting Office, reported last month that Mr. Hussein siphoned off $4.4 billion through surcharges on oil sales and kickbacks under the UN program known as "oil for food."

That program was set up by the UN Security Council in late 1996 as a way to provide food and medicine to Iraqis despite UN-imposed sanctions on the Hussein regime. To pay for the aid, Hussein was allowed to sell a limited amount of oil - allowing him to ask vendors for "surcharges" - while the rest of the oil revenues were managed by private banks under the not-so-watchful eye of the UN.

The scheme was badly run from the start, relying too much on secret deals and secret bank accounts, with some 3,000 UN workers involved. The US complained for years but was stymied by France and Russia, whose companies benefited from the oil-for-food program.

Now Mr. Annan, after hesitating too long, has been forced to set up an independent investigation. Last Friday, he wisely chose former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to lead the probe.

But once again, Russia has intervened and is hindering the probe's scope by denying the commission a Security Council resolution that would help it be more effective. Perhaps Moscow fears Russian companies might be exposed for allegedly giving kickbacks to Hussein.

The Iraqi people deserve to know how their country's natural wealth was squandered and perhaps get some money back.

US taxpayers, too, need to see reforms in the UN since they are the world body's largest funder.

And the UN itself needs to learn a lesson from this sanctions scheme gone awry so that it can perform better next time.

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