US citizen pleads guilty in oil-for-food scam

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The US Department of Justice on Tuesday announced an American citizen had entered a guilty plea over criminal offences related to Iraq's scandal-ridden oil-for-food programme.

The department also warned it would continue to hunt those who illegally helped Saddam Hussein's regime to subvert the international sanctions regime.

John Ashcroft, the outgoing US attorney-general, the FBI, and David Kelley, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Samir Vincent, an Iraqi-born, naturalised US citizen, had pleaded guilty on Tuesday at the Manhattan federal court. They said he had agreed to help them with their investigations.

Mr Vincent, a Boston-educated Olympic athlete, was charged with four counts, including acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Iraqi government. Mr Vincent, who faces a maximum sentence of 28 years, also admitted to receiving lucrative oil allocations in return for operating as an Iraqi agent between 1992 and 2003.

“Vincent consulted with and repeatedly received direction from Saddam Hussein's government in an ongoing effort to influence officials in the US and the United Nations to repeal sanctions,” the US attorney, the Southern District of New York, said.

Among other activities, between 1998 and 2003, Mr Vincent “lobbied former officials of the US government who maintained close contacts to high-ranking members of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in an unsuccessful effort to influence the US government to support a repeal of sanctions against Iraq”.

In return, he received five separate allocations of Iraqi oil, which was being sold below market prices. Mr Vincent “was able to reap profits totalling millions of dollars by reselling these allocations of Iraqi oil to an oil company”.

“Today, we know from the moment the oil-for-food programme was introduced, Saddam Hussein and his agents attempted to subvert it, working the system so profits were diverted to fund a brutal regime rather than to feed the people of Iraq,” Mr Ashcroft said.

“Combating corruption, such as that detailed in this plea agreement, sends a clear message both to American citizens and the citizens of Iraq: corruption will not be tolerated. It will be prosecuted.” It was unclear, however, what would happen to Mr Vincent's illegal profits.

The UN oil-for-food programme was launched in 1996 as a way of alleviating the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. It required Iraq to funnel all oil receipts through an escrow account, which were then used to buy goods approved by the UN and member governments.

But through a mix of kickbacks, surcharges and outright smuggling, Mr Hussein was able to raise billions of dollars to prop up his regime.

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