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How a mid-level British diplomat used me to keep President George W. Bush from going wobbly on Iraq sanctions

Buried in Britain's Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is testimony from a former British diplomat, posted to the United Nations, that admits leaking a story to me in order to embarrass the Bush administration into tightening U.N. sanctions on Iraq. Apparently, it worked.

Carne Ross, the first secretary at Britain's U.N. mission to the United Nations, testified this week that he and others at Britain's mission to the United Nations had tried to devise a scheme to thwart Saddam Hussein's efforts to manipulate U.N.-monitored oil exports.  Hussein was trying to drive down the price enough to force foreign oil traders to make up the difference through secret payments that would circumvent U.N. sanctions.

The strategy was designed to deprive the late Iraqi leader of hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal bribes. But the approach faced resistance, not only from Iraq's chief ally on the council, Russia, but from the Bush administration. The State Department worried that the move might provoke Saddam into halting Iraq's oil exports, roiling the international oil markets. But the United States reversed course two days after an August 2001 story I wrote in the Washington Post exposed their position.

"We achieved this result with little support from ministers or senior officials in London, or from our allies," Ross said in his testimony. "Indeed, for some time the U.S. failed to support our initiative in New York, and were only brought on board after we deliberately leaked this failure to the Washington Post, which wrote up the story. This public embarrassment had more effect than the low-lever remonstrations of British officials in Washington."

Ross's broader message was that the sanctions had succeeded in severely constraining Iraq's ability to re-arm in the years leading up to the 2003 invasion. For me, the case represented another example of how willing the United States was to circumvent the U.N. sanctions to accommodate competing interests. The United States allowed Syria to illegally import oil from Iraq, for instance, a flagrant violation of the sanctions.

Few recall that perhaps the single largest violation of the U.N. oil sanctions was carried out with the support of the United States. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, U.S. war ships monitoring Iraq's coast allowed fuel tankers to go to Khor Al-Amaya, an unauthorized oil export facility, to collect more than $50 million worth of crude from Saddam's government. The scheme, which was abetted by the State Department, was designed to allow an American ally, Jordan, to build up its strategic oil reserves in advance of the conflict.

Ross's testimony is part of a wide-ranging inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq invasion set up by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in June 2009. Ross, who currently runs Independent Diplomat, a firm that provides diplomatic advice to non-state political movements, outlined Britain's role in the run up to the March, 2003 war. He had responsibility for managing Britain's Middle East policy from 1997-2002, where his main priority was shoring up support for Britain's containment policy against Iraq.

"New York was in effect the front lines of the UK's work to sustain international support for controls on Iraq," he said. "While there were serious sanctions breaches, it was not the UK judgment that these permitted significant rearmament which was our major concern ... It is therefore inaccurate to claim, as some earlier witnesses have done, that containment was failing and that sanctions were collapsing." That assessment -- which was shared by U.S. ambassador John D. Negroponte and other officials at the U.S. mission to the United Nations -- was subsequently manipulated by policymakers in London and Washington to bolster the case for a military invasion.

Ross maintains that Washington and London failed to act on several proposals to tighten Iraqi sanction breaches, which provided the Iraqi government with up to $2 billion a year in revenues. "I and my colleagues at the mission (backed by some but not all responsible officials in London) attempted to get the UK and U.S. to act more vigorously on the breaches," he said. "I held talks with a U.S. Treasury expert on financial sanctions, an official who had helped trace and seize [Serbian leader Slobodon] Milosevic's illegal financial assets. He assured me that, given the green light, he could quickly set up a team to target Saddam's illegal accounts. This was never done."

"We could, for instance, have seized the illegal bank accounts held by Saddam in Amman, Jordan," Ross added. "Instead this egregious breach of sanctions was ignored." Ross said that the leaked story about Washington's failure to tighten the U.N. procedure for pricing Iraqi oil was a rare victory. "Such occasions, he said, "were the exception, not the rule."

Read the full testimony here.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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