WASHINGTON (AP) — An Iraqi-American businessman, accused of pocketing millions of dollars through the U.N. oil-for-food program with Iraq, pleaded guilty yesterday to acting as an illegal agent of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Samir Vincent, 64, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Annandale, Va., is the first person to be charged in the Justice Department’s investigation of the program, which U.N. audits have shown was badly mismanaged.

The United Nations operated the program from 1996 to 2003 as a way for Iraq’s oil riches to benefit its people, who were suffering from years of deprivation brought on by economic sanctions imposed on Saddam’s regime following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Under the program, proceeds from the sale of oil from Iraq was placed into an account overseen by the United Nations. Money was to be withdrawn by Iraq only to purchase food, medicine and other humanitarian necessities.

The program produced an estimated $67 billion for humanitarian needs in Iraq but was used by Saddam to generate illegal kickbacks that totaled another $1.7 billion, according to a CIA report by special weapons inspector Charles Duelfer.

Vincent was among dozens of people and companies in the United States and elsewhere to receive vouchers from Saddam’s government for allocations of Iraqi oil as well as the right to keep profits they made selling or trading the oil.

Vincent received the rights to some 9 million barrels of oil and cash payments from Saddam’s government in return for lobbying U.S. and U.N. officials on issues such as weakening of economic sanctions, the admission of arms inspectors and the oil-for-food program itself, prosecutors said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Vincent was one of Saddam’s “accomplices” in a broad effort by Iraq to turn the oil-for-food program into a vehicle for Iraq to sell influence and fatten its treasury.

“We know that from the moment the oil-for-food program was introduced, Saddam Hussein and his agents attempted to subvert it, working the system so that profits were diverted to fund a brutal regime rather than to feed the people of Iraq,” Ashcroft said.

President Bush’s choice to be the next secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing yesterday that the oil-for-food program became a “scandal” that allowed Saddam access to huge sums of money.

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