On the take

October 28, 2005

There have been two bribery-in-Baghdad scandals. The bigger one, unfolding under the noses of American occupiers and touching on everything from garbage collection to weapons procurement, is still going on. The smaller one, which took place under the auspices of the United Nations between 2000 and 2002, is finished and has been thoroughly investigated. The latest report by U.N. investigators came out yesterday, and it's hard not to feel a certain grudging sense of admiration for the way Saddam Hussein and his henchmen managed to get buyers and sellers to fork over baksheesh. Buyers of Iraqi oil, that is, and sellers of humanitarian goods permitted under the United Nations' oil-for-food program - somehow, both sides were made to feel they were supplicants to Baghdad's whims.

The investigation found that customers and suppliers paid surcharges or loading fees or after-sales service fees or inland transportation fees, all to the tune of $1.6 billion in cash that emphatically did not help feed Iraq's impoverished millions. The biggest player was Malaysian, and the Russians and French were the most numerous, but few were the companies, American included, that balked.

The head of the probe, Paul A. Volcker, sharply criticizes the U.N. for lax controls. He's right, of course, though there's a fair amount of wishful thinking in the notion that bribery could be kept at bay nearly anywhere in the Middle East. Certainly the 2,000 companies seeking to do business with Mr. Hussein weren't above greasing palms, and neither are those that have enjoyed the bonanza of corruption that Baghdad became after the Americans arrived in town.

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