British MP George Galloway turns the tables on his interrogators while giving testimony before the U.S. Senate Investigations Sub-Committee.JULIAN BORGER in Washington
British MP George Galloway turns the tables on his interrogators while giving testimony before the U.S. Senate Investigations Sub-Committee.
GEORGE GALLOWAY, British Member of Parliament, confronted his accusers in the United States Senate on May 17, denying he had traded Iraqi oil before the war and using his testimony to unleash an indictment of the U.S.-led invasion in one of the most heated exchanges Congress has witnessed in many years.
Galloway, the newly elected MP for the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, was appearing before the Senate investigations subcommittee examining sanctions-busting oil deals in Iraq before the war. In a lengthy preamble before his appearance, Senate staff presented a series of documents, enlarged and printed on huge white boards, which they said were Iraqi government memoranda naming Galloway as the recipient of highly lucrative allocations of cheap Iraqi oil under the United Nations-administered Oil-For-Food programme.
Senator Norm Coleman, the committee chairman who took the lead in making allegations against Galloway, repeatedly insisted that the hearing was "not a court of law". But the early scene was entirely lawyerly in tone, with Coleman very much in the role of chief prosecutor.
He read out an indictment of Galloway, recalling praise the Scottish politician had addressed to Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, saluting "your courage, your strength, your indefatigability".
In a low businesslike voice, the Senator from Minnesota ran through some of the documentary evidence naming Galloway. "Senior Iraqi officials have confirmed that you, in fact, received oil allocations and that the documents that identify you as an allocation recipient are valid," Coleman said. "If you can provide any evidence that challenges the veracity of these documents or the statements of former Iraqi officials, we'd welcome that input."
Then it was Galloway's turn, and any sense of judicial propriety was instantly shattered. The courtroom became a vaudeville theatre, as the MP lampooned his interrogators, particularly Coleman, who he accused of making a "schoolboy howler" by declaring him guilty "without ever having asked me a single question".
Galloway insisted that he was entirely innocent.
"Senator, I am not now nor have I ever been an oil trader and neither has anyone on my behalf," he declared, in language that deliberately echoed that of Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunt conducted half a century ago just metres from the chamber used for the hearing.
"I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf," he said.
The spacious, wood-panelled room was packed with journalists and spectators. A group of politics students stood at the back. The turnout among Senators was less spectacular, however. Only four appeared for the start of the hearing. By the time Galloway took the microphone, there were only two left, Coleman and Carl Levin, the leading Democrat on the panel.
Witnesses in this august setting, a little below and surrounded by the horseshoe bench of powerful Senators, are usually awed and almost always on the defensive. Galloway was on the attack from the first moment. He entered the hearing room with guns blazing, telling journalists his inquisitors were "crazed", "pro-war", "lickspittles" of the President, and predicting he would turn the tables on them.
"I want to put these people on trial. This group of neo-cons is involved in the mother of smokescreens," he said. That was the common theme of a feat of bare-knuckled rhetoric not often witnessed by the Senators who are accustomed to considerably more reverence for their positions. Almost every charge against Galloway was deflected and turned against the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress.
For example, he denied the committee's claim that he had met Saddam many times, claiming there had only been two such meetings - and that the U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had met the former Iraqi President the same number of times.
He also contrasted his activism in the 1970s and 1980s with official connivance with the Baghdad regime:
"I used to demonstrate outside the Iraqi embassy when British and American officials were going in and out doing commerce.
"Now, you have nothing on me, Senator, except my name on lists of names from Iraq, many of which have been drawn up after the installation of your puppet government in Baghdad."
He rejected testimony gathered by the committee from the former Iraqi Vice-President, Taha Yassin Ramadan, naming Galloway as an oil recipient.
"I have never met Mr. Ramadan; your sub-committee apparently has. But I do know that he is your prisoner. I believe he's in Abu Ghraib prison. I believe he's facing war crimes charges punishable by death. In these circumstances, knowing what the world knows about how you treat prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, in Bagram air base, in Guantanamo Bay... I'm not sure how much credibility anyone would put on anything you manage to get from a prisoner in those circumstances."
His tone was sometimes angry, constantly hectoring.
"What counts is not the names on the paper; what counts is where is the money, Senator? Who paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars of money? The answer to that is nobody. And if you had anybody who ever paid me a penny, you would have produced them here today."
Galloway also used anti-war rhetoric far more raw than most politicians are accustomed to in America, where shared patriotism normally trumps outrage.
He said that 100,000 people had paid with their lives for the mistaken intelligence on Iraq, "1,600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies".
In their cross-examination, the Senators focussed on Galloway's relationship with Fawaz Zureikat, the chairman of Galloway's charity, the Mariam Appeal, and one of its biggest contributors, arguing that the MP must have known about Zureikat's oil trading in his name.
Once more, the accused tried to turn the tables on his accusers. When Coleman asked how he could have failed to be aware of Zureikat's oil deals, Galloway turned the attention to Coleman's campaign fund-raising.
He said: "Well, there's a lot of contributors, I've just been checking your web site.... "
"Not many at that level, Mr. Galloway," the Senator interjected quickly.
"No, let me assure you there are," Galloway went on. "I've checked your web site. There are lots of contributors to your political campaign funds, I don't suppose you ask any of them how they made the money they give you."
Coleman stuck to his task. "If I can get back to Mr. Zureikat one more time, do you recall a time when you specifically had a conversation with him about oil dealings in Iraq?"
"I've already answered that question," Galloway replied. "I can assure you, Mr. Zureikat never gave me a penny from an oil deal, from a cake deal, from a bread deal or from any deal."
Levin, whose investigation of the U.S. government's own failure to police sanctions has helped Galloway's cause, had no better luck in his cross-examination. When he invited Galloway to say whether he was alleging the documentary evidence was forged, the British MP replied: "Well, I have no way of knowing, sir."
"That's fine. So you're not alleging," Levin persisted."I have no way of knowing."
"Is it fair to say, since you don't know, you're not alleging?"
"Well, it would have been nice to have seen it before today," Galloway said. The interrogation continued minuet-like for another few minutes before the Senators gave up, frustrated. They had come equipped for a trial and found themselves in the role of stooges for a man accustomed to playing to the gallery.Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005