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The U.N. Oil for Food scandal
Published March 23, 2004

Second of two parts.

    Yesterday, we noted the growing scandal in the U.N. Oil for Food program and the fact that billions of dollars that were supposed to provide food and medical care to the Iraqi people were used by Saddam Hussein to bribe powerful people around the world into opposing sanctions against his regime.  Today, we focus on the one positive result of the scandal: It has begun to cause some in the Arab world to take a more introspective look at the behavior of Arabs who took money from Saddam -- and specifically, to examine whether the money caused them to remain silent while the dictator killed and brutalized millions of their fellow Arabs.

    While the Arab media have generally ignored the subject thus far, that has begun to change, according to materials recently translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  For example, Abd Al-Ghani Mahmoud, head of the International Law Department at Al-Azhar University in Egypt (a leading institution in the training of Islamic legal scholars), was blistering in his condemnation of those in the Arab world who profited from Saddam's largesse.  "Those who have the instruments to influence their peoples -- intellectuals, politicians, political parties or institutions -- have become in some of these countries propaganda mouthpieces for a corrupt dictatorial regime which has dragged the whole region into oblivion," Mr. Mahmoud said in an interview published last month.  He also said that "those who collected money from this regime, which destroyed its people with chemical weapons while enjoying a life of luxury in palaces during their sanctions, are partners in wronging the [Iraqi] people through their silence about the corruption.  They must be punished morally by publishing their names and what they have received, so they will serve as an example for others." 

    In the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyassa, columnist Shaker Al-Nabulsi expressed his astonishment that Leith Shbeilat, an Islamist militant and member of the Jordanian parliament, was taking money from Saddam -- a secularist who despised Muslim clerics and tortured and killed many of them.  In an op-ed that ran in the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Salama Na'mat denounced Arab television and other media organs for showing little interest in the Oil for Food scandal: "The reality is that some Arab governments perhaps do not object that politicians and media people benefit from Saddam's bribes either because they are also involved or see no harm because it is a normal practice by the Arab regimes."

    Not everyone in the Arab media, however, has been in an introspective mood.  Some have been downright defensive about the news that many in the Arab world were complicit in Saddam's abuses of the Oil for Food program.  For example, in January, Faisal al Qassim, host of a program on Qatari-based Al-Jazeera television, suggested that abuse of the humanitarian program was qualitatively no different from the fact that opponents of Saddam were helped by the CIA.  Then, last month, Al-Hayat published documents linking Mr. al Qassim to Saddam's intelligence operation.

    The silver lining in all this is the reality that abuses in the Oil for Food program are serving to discredit some of those who were complicit in tyranny in the Arab world.