Natwar was at Iraq anti-sanctions meetings: Bhim

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  • Published 3.11.05

New Delhi, Nov. 2: External affairs minister Natwar Singh describes the charges as “rubbish”. But the chief of the J&K Panthers Party, Bhim Singh, claims that he has “information” that the Paul Volcker Committee inquiring into irregularities in the oil-for-food programme had sent a letter to Natwar Singh, giving him a chance to explain his role as a “non-contractual beneficiary” of the programme.

“I am only giving you information. I have no evidence,” Bhim Singh clarifies.

Bhim Singh also makes another claim: “Natwar Singh participated as a special invitee in two or three meetings of the Iraqi government-sponsored Co-ordination Committee against Economic Sanctions.”

The Panthers Party chief was a regular at the deliberations of the committee headed by then Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

Natwar Singh’s office responded to these claims with alacrity. The minister, they said, could be quoted as saying: “It’s rubbish. No letter ever came to me. There was no committee meeting that I attended. I am unaware of any such committee.”

Bhim Singh returned the 7.3 million barrels of oil allotment under the programme. The Volcker Report lists him as someone who did not sell his contract to any company.

Saddam Hussein, Bhim Singh claims, was only routing the contracts through favoured individuals and entities.

The Congress, Bhim Singh says, was close to the Iraqi regime. “In fact, in Saddam’s house there was only one framed picture I saw and that was of Saddam with Indira Gandhi. Outside the Indian embassy in Baghdad, there used to be a big joint portrait of the two ? perhaps about three feet by six feet,” he claims.

Bhim Singh thinks that he was being “rewarded” for his books and articles against the sanctions and several documentaries on Iraq.

Then suddenly he shows his worn-out wristwatch ? a Swiss dual-time watch gifted to him by Saddam, and another designer watch, still in its original packing from Longines, with the symbol of the Baath Party on the dial. “These two watches and some decorative knick-knacks are the only gifts I accepted from Saddam Hussein,” he says with a smile.

The attempt to reward him, however, did not end with the oil contract.

“After I returned to India, the Iraqi ambassador in Delhi called me to his residence on Prithviraj Road for a drink. I went with two journalist friends. He gave us a drink and presented me a nice bottle to take home also. Then he brought out a thick packet and said it was a small gift from his President.”

What did he think was in the packet? “Well, I suspect there were dollar bills ? lots of them. But I declined; accepting only the bottle. My journalist friends told me later, ‘You are an idiot’,” recalled Bhim Singh in the manner of the fishing stories about the big one that got away.

Saddam, Bhim Singh claims, rewarded friends in a big way ? from the Communist Party of Russia to British MP George Galloway. Bhim Singh recalls: “He treated these individuals and even parties as commission agents. They got 25 to 35 per cent commission.”

Galloway won a hefty damages suit against The Daily Telegraph in London for its reportage on his role last December. “The damages were not granted on merits but because the right process was not adopted. Neither Volcker nor the newspaper sought his version. It was after this incident that the Volcker committee decided to issue notices to all non-contractual beneficiaries,” Bhim Singh explains.

He went on to claim: “To my knowledge, Natwar Singh was issued a notice after the Galloway incident. But perhaps he did not bother to respond.”