A SENATE committee is investigating whether a senior United Nations official may have aided Iraq in its capture of two Americans who crossed into Iraq from Kuwait earlier this year.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona told the Monitor the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is pursuing an inquiry into the activities of Iqbal Riza, who holds the position of assistant secretary-general in the office of peacekeeping operations at the United Nations in New York.
Other knowledgeable sources indicate that the probe centers on whether Mr. Riza passed confidential information to Iraqi leaders who set up the Americans, William Barloon and David Daliberti, for arrest.
In an interview, Riza said he had no idea that he was the focus of a congressional probe. He said he knew of no reason that would justify one.
The investigation comes at a time when Iraq has launched a new diplomatic offensive to gain support for lifting UN trade sanctions levied after the Gulf war.
"I must say it takes me quite by surprise," Riza said. "I really don't know what is being talked about. I fully understand the concern of the senator, and in fact many American government officials and members of Congress, about the fate of the Americans."
Riza said he would be "happy" to speak to the Intelligence Committee if it made a formal request to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "I can't say anything else beyond that," he said.
A Pakistani national, Riza has served in UN posts since the late 1970s, including as a mediator between Iraq and Iran during their eight-year war and as a special envoy to Central America in 1990 to 1991.
"I can confirm that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is investigating the possible role that Iqbal Riza may have had in connection with the border incident," says Senator Kyl, a member of the panel.
"What is specifically being investigated is the role, if any, he may have played in connection with the ultimate detainment of the two Americans currently being held as a result of the border-crossing incident from Kuwait."
Kyl declined to elaborate further on the case. Allegations about Riza's collaboration with Iraq were first passed along to the Senate Intelligence Committee three weeks ago. A Senate source who wished not to be named said the panel takes the charges "very seriously," and has asked US intelligence agencies to provide any relevant information they may have.
But "at this point the committee has turned up no information to substantiate the allegations," the source said.
Kyl said the panel had been in touch with the State Department, though he didn't know what it was doing with the information. "There could be other [inquiries]," he said.
As part of his job, Riza helps oversee the UN's Iraq-Kuwait Monitoring Mission (UNIKOM). The international force was deployed after the 1991 Gulf war along the Iraq-Kuwait border to watch for any new Iraqi military moves toward Kuwait.
On March 31, Mr. Barloon and Mr. Daliberti were arrested by Iraqi troops after they crossed into Iraq from Kuwait.
The US says the pair were American defense contractors employed in Kuwait and that they strayed into Iraq while trying to visit friends working for UNIKOM. It has expressed concerns over the pair's health and urged Baghdad to free them on humanitarian grounds.
The Iraqi regime claims Barloon and Daliberti were involved in espionage. Twelve days after their arrest, an Iraqi court sentenced them to eight-year prison terms. An appeals court upheld the sentences this week, but said there was room for further appeals.
Western diplomats have linked the Americans' detentions to Iraqi anger over the Clinton administration's efforts to maintain the UN trade sanctions. The two men's wives visited them several weeks ago, but were unable to win their release.