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 Iraqis call for inquiry into Blair and Korean tycoon: Oil Minister is being probed over corruption claims  

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Iraqis call for inquiry into Blair and Korean tycoon: Oil Minister is being probed over corruption claims  29.3.2010   
By Barbara Jones and Peter Simpson 

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March 29, 2010

LONDON, — Politicians controlling one of the world's richest oilfields face questions over Tony Blair's involvement with a South Korean energy company.

Mr Blair was secretly hired as an adviser by UI Energy Corporation, which has invested millions of pounds in the search for oil in Kurdish-controlled autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq's north.

Mr Blair's involvement has sparked fury in the area, with one newspaper headline declaring: 'The corruption of Tony Blair is revealed in Kurdistan.'

Now, a top opposition politician wants a full debate on Mr Blair's role.

Mohamad Tofiq Rahim, deputy leader of the Movement for Change in Kurdistan, said: 'Here is a South Korean corporation desperate for concessions in our oilfields and there is Tony Blair, very well-placed to make a personal call to Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, who revels in his closeness to Western leaders.

'It could have all been wrapped up in minutes.'

The flamboyant businessman in charge of awarding oil exploration contracts in Northern Iraq is Ashti Hawrami, who is understood to be under investigation by the Financial Services Authority, the City's regulator.

Mr Hawrami, 61, who owns a mansion in Henley-on-Thames – fewer than 30 miles from Mr Blair's country home in Buckinghamshire – is energy minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He is said to have made £13million by trading shares in a British company that struck oil in Iraq.                              

Kurdistan oil minister Ashti Hawrami 'has made £13million from oil share sales'


Luxury living: Tycoon Ashti Hawrami's imposing countryside mansion. Photos: Daily Mail
Mr Hawrami invested in Heritage Oil after he gave it a contract to begin exploration work. He sold the shares after Heritage found oil last March. Now it has emerged that Mr Hawrami has met the chairman of UI Energy, Kyu-Sun Choi.

The Mail on Sunday revealed last week that Mr Choi had served a two-year prison term in South Korea for bribery.

UI Energy said initially last week that Mr Blair had been paid to advise the company on Iraq in 2008, the year after he left Downing Street.

But UI Energy's lawyer Jeffrey Jones said later: 'Mr Blair was hired to assist with an activity in the Middle East. However, it had nothing to do with Iraq or Kurdistan.

'There was one meeting with Mr Blair in 2008 and we had some email traffic on follow-up questions with his staff. But once the 2008 financial crisis hit,
www.ekurd.netthe transaction was abandoned and we had no further contact with Mr Blair.'

Kurdish political commentators have accused Mr Blair of profiteering from the invasion of Iraq. Mr Rahim said: 'There is no transparency in the way our oil – our people's only wealth – is being sold-off secretly to foreign companies.

'Instead, there is shocking corruption demonstrated by our minister's former share-profiting and now by this scandalous news of Blair's intervention and influence. We can see now how useful his role is as so-called Middle East peace envoy.

'We will demand answers to this scandal around Blair and we will demand future transparency.'

Mr Blair is known to have formed close links with President Talibani, who is a Kurd, and with Kurdistan President Moussad Barzani. Both described Mr Blair as a 'hero' after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Now, questions are being asked over his possible influence over them in their dealings with foreign corporations anxious to exploit the Kurdish oil fields.

There is further unease over the role of Mr Hawrami, who built a fortune as an oil consultant while in exile in Britain during Saddam's years in power.

Last month, he was summoned by the Kurdistan parliament to answer questions about the money he made from selling shares in Heritage Oil and about similar allegations in relation to a Norwegian oil company.

In a live TV interview watched by millions, Mr Hawrami appeared nervous and embarrassed as he insisted that he had acted within the law and that profits from the deals had gone to the Kurdish government.

Mr Hawrami travels only periodically to Kurdistan and lives mainly in his mansion in Henley-on-Thames.

Political analyst Asos Hardi, publisher of the Kurdish current affairs magazine Awene, said: 'We do not accept that Hawrami was legally able to use his insider knowledge to buy shares cheaply and sell them for a sensational amount of money.

'He has signed each and every deal with foreign oil companies since the KRG made him a minister. There is no transparency in the deals and no public record of the contracts.
'Kurds have waited so long for their rightful independence and the development of our oilfields is vital to a successful economy.'

Mr Choi, 49, was convicted of bribery in 2003 over the awarding of contracts to run a national lottery in South Korea. After his release from jail, he left South Korea for two years and went to live in the United States.

But on his return he was accused of involvement in another case of alleged financial impropriety, this time over an attempt to join an oil exploration consortium in Iraq.

He was charged but then eliminated from the investigation after the prosecution said there was not enough evidence to put him on trial.

Mr Blair's spokesman said last night that the former Prime Minister had 'never heard' of Mr Hawrami. Mr Hawrami said the KRG's contract was not with UI Energy Corporation but a South Korean govern- ment-owned consortium of which UI Energy was an affiliated member.

He added: 'We know UI Energy as it has been working in the Kurdistan region on a hospital project and on a small power plant. 'We are not aware of any relationship between UI Energy and Mr Blair.
'I wish to categorically state that I have never met Mr Blair and I have had no communication with him in relation to oil contracts or any other matter.'

He did not respond to inquiries relating to the alleged FSA investigation into his share dealings.

Oil chief and £4m manor

Flamboyant Ashti Hawrami's magnificent home, Ardlair House, bears witness to the success of the oil consultancy he founded in Britain after fleeing Iraq.

The £4million mansion, in the village of Fawley on the border of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, stands in its own lush grounds and has a sweeping drive.
 
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