NEW YORK (AP) _ An Iraqi-American businessman who admitted helping Saddam Hussein's government in the oil-for-food scandal was fined $300,000 and sentenced to probation by a judge who said he provided substantial assistance to the U.S. government after his arrest.

"He was a terrific witness," U.S. District Judge Denny Chin said Thursday as he bestowed leniency on Samir A. Vincent, who could have faced years in prison.

Vincent, a 67-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Annandale, Va., testified at two trials, including one that was interrupted when Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt Jr. pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Vincent, an oil trader, had occasionally accompanied Wyatt on his meetings with high-ranking Iraqi officials.

Wyatt was sentenced last year to a year and a day in prison.

The judge said he agreed with the government that the oil-for-food cases could not have been made without the involvement of Vincent, who was a decathlete on Iraq's 1964 Olympics team.

Vincent was the first person charged in the federal probe of the program, which operated from 1996 to 2003 to provide humanitarian relief to Iraq's people, who were suffering from the effects of economic sanctions imposed on Saddam's regime after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Before he was sentenced, he told the judge he was "ashamed and sorry." He said he hoped to "regain the trust of a country that has been so good to me" and promised he would never make such a mistake again.

"I've learned my lesson, your honor," Vincent said.

Edward O'Callaghan, chief of the U.S. attorney's terrorism and national security office, told the judge Vincent's remorse was sincere.

"It is not hyperbole to state that without Vincent's cooperation, the government's OFFP (oil-for-food program) investigations may not have resulted in criminal charges and its prosecutions would not have resulted in convictions," O'Callaghan wrote in court papers.

Prosecutors had accused Vincent of operating on direct instructions from Saddam's government between 1992 and 2003 and delivering an Iraqi intelligence service message in November 2001 to a former U.S. official regarding Iraq's position on readmission of weapons inspectors and on weakening the sanctions.

The oil-for-food 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, a CIA report found.

Vincent received about $310,000 under the oil-for-food program and five oil contracts from which his company, Phoenix International LLC, made $1.9 million in profit, O'Callaghan said.

At the sentencing, the judge cited letters he had received describing efforts by Vincent, who once studied for Catholic priesthood, to help the Iraqi people, the Catholic church and Catholics who face challenges in countries that are primarily Muslim.

"One wonders how he ended up in the situation he was in," the judge said. "Part of it was money. And I'm persuaded some of it was a sincere desire to help the Iraqi people."

Vincent had worked for years to improve U.S.-Iraqi relations, including helping organize an invitation for a 1999 U.S. tour by Iraqi clerics with evangelist Billy Graham.

The oil-for-food program also resulted in charges against South Korean businessman Tongsun Park, who was sentenced to three years and a month in prison for accepting more than $2.5 million to secretly work on Iraq's behalf. Vincent testified at his trial.

Texas oilman David Chalmers was sentenced this year to two years in prison for approving the payment of millions of dollars in kickbacks to Saddam's regime so his companies could secure oil contracts.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.