NEW YORK -- Saddam Hussein diverted money from the U.N. oil-for-food program to pay millions of dollars to families of Palestinian suicide bombers who carried out attacks on Israel, say congressional investigators who uncovered evidence of the money trail.
The former Iraqi president tapped secret bank accounts in Jordan -- where he collected bribes from foreign companies and individuals doing illicit business under the humanitarian program -- to reward the families up to $25,000 each, investigators told The Associated Press.
Documents prepared for a hearing today by the House International Relations Committee outline the new findings.
Today's hearing, however, will focus on a French bank that handled most of the money for the program. An audit by a U.S. regulatory agency of a small sample of transactions out of the $60 billion U.N. escrow account managed by BNP-Paribas has raised serious questions concerning the bank's compliance with American money-laundering laws, investigators said.
"There are indications that the bank may have been noncompliant in administering the oil-for-food program,"
Committee chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said. "If true, these possible banking lapses may have facilitated Saddam Hussein's manipulation and corruption of the program."
While acknowledging that U.S. regulators have raised routine issues with BNP on compliance with banking laws, a lawyer for BNP said Hyde's statement was unfair.
"No departure from any standard caused or contributed in any way to the abuse at the oil-for-food program," the bank's lead counsel, Robert S. Bennett, said. "There are simply no connections."
The humanitarian program let Iraq trade oil for food, medicine and other items. But investigators say Saddam made more than $21.3 billion in illegal revenue under the program.
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