A British member of parliament and a former French minister have both denied receiving kickbacks from Saddam Hussein under the UN oil-for-food programme, as claimed by a US Congress panel.
The Senate investigation said on Thursday that George Galloway, a socialist member of parliament who was re-elected in last week's British election, and Charles Pasqua, the conservative former French interior minister, received lucrative allocations of millions of barrels of oil.
But both Galloway and Pasqua quickly denied the allegations. Galloway said they were "a big lie".
Galloway, newly elected to the British parliament as a left-wing anti-Iraq war independent after Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party expelled him over his views on the conflict, said on Thursday the claims were absurd.
"This is a political hatchet job done by (President) George Bush's committee in Washington," he told Sky News.
"The idea that the most scrutinised politician in Britain was secretly moonlighting as an oil trading billionaire is patently absurd.
"This is merely the repetition of old allegations already discredited and moreover it is from a group of people who did not even want to speak to me, did not write to me, did not ask me a question and did not respond to my offer to go over to America and speak to them. It is all rubbish."
Pasqua, who last held government office in 1995, said the allegations had been made before, and he had denied them before.
"I denied, as early as January 2004, and again in October 2004, having received any benefits, in any form whatsoever, from the authorities or the regime of Saddam Hussein," he said in a statement on Thursday.
"The report published today ... repeats a great number of these elements. I deny them once more."
Two leading senators used the evidence collected against Galloway and Pasqua to condemn the UN programme, which is at the centre of a major international corruption investigation.
The probe by the Permanent Senate Subcommittee on Investigations said on Thursday it had evidence that Iraq gave Galloway 20 million barrels of oil in allocations and Pasqua 11 million barrels.
The panel backed US government claims that Saddam's government awarded the oil contracts to influential foreign officials in an effort to maximise Baghdad's influence.
"These allocation holders - essentially gatekeepers to Iraqi oil - would sell their right to buy underpriced Iraqi crude to traditional oil producers and in turn received a 'commission', which typically ranged from 3 to 30 cents per barrel," said a statement released by Senators Norm Coleman, Republican chairman of the Senate committee, and Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat.
"The staff report presents numerous documents from the Hussein-era Ministry of Oil that expressly identify Charles Pasqua and George Galloway as allocation recipients," they said.
Galloway, a fierce critic of British Prime Minister Tony Blair over Iraq, won ?150,000 ($280,000) in libel damages from Britain's The Daily Telegraph newspaper in December over claims he had received money from Hussein's government.
Galloway was expelled from the ruling Labour Party because of his criticism of Britain's role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
"The Pasqua and Galloway oil allocations show how Saddam Hussein misused the oil-for-food programme to reward people he hoped would work against UN sanctions"
But last week he was re-elected to parliament for the anti-war Respect Party, beating a Labour candidate.
Coleman, a fierce critic of the UN, said: "This report exposes how Saddam Hussein turned the oil-for-food programme on its head and used the programme to reward his political allies like Pasqua and Galloway."
Levin commented: "The Pasqua and Galloway oil allocations show how Saddam Hussein misused the oil-for-food programme to reward people he hoped would work against UN sanctions."
He added: "The United States and other UN Security Council members made a fundamental mistake in allowing Saddam Hussein to award oil-for-food contracts and issue oil allocations."
Pasqua, who twice served as France's interior minister, has immunity from prosecution in France as a member of the country's senate upper chamber.
But a former diplomatic adviser to Pasqua, Bernard Guillet, was placed under investigation by a French magistrate on 28 April on suspicion that he was involved in an oil-for-food fraud.
US Congress say Pasqua (L) was
rewarded in oil by Hussein
Both politicians, the US report alleged, were deeply involved in the scandal surrounding the now defunct $64 billion humanitarian programme, under which the UN oversaw oil sales by Hussein's government between 1996 and 2003.
The US report said there was evidence that Pasqua sought to conceal his involvement because he "feared political scandals". It said the evidence also indicated that Galloway "may have used a children's cancer foundation in connection with at least one of his allocations".
The programme was meant to let Iraq sell oil and to get money to buy food, medicine, and other humanitarian items for its people.
But Hussein allegedly subverted the programme to undermine UN sanctions and obtain millions of dollars in illicit income, by selling the right to buy allocations of oil to prospective buyers, according to investigators.
Additional findings in the scandal were to be released at a committee hearing set for 17 May.
An investigation has cleared Kofi
Annan of corruption charges
An independent panel led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker has already conducted an investigation into corruption by UN officials in the programme.
Volcker said in March that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not play a role in the awarding of a contract to a Swiss firm that hired his son, Kojo.
But the panel said serious questions remain about Kojo's business dealings, and that former UN oil-for-food chief Benon Sevan steered Iraqi oil contracts to an acquaintance.