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The Niger connection: what we know, what we don't know, and what we may never be told

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington and Ben Russell

10 July 2003

* The 'evidence' that Iraq sought uranium from Niger was crucial in persuading the public of the case for war
* Letters suggesting Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium for use in a nuclear weapons programme were exposed as forgeries in March
* The CIA and State Department were dismissing the Niger connection long before the war started
* The White House has - belatedly - admitted it should never have used it
* The British Government is still standing by it

Pressure was mounting on the Government and the Bush administration last night for a full investigation into their claims that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons.

It was revealed yesterday that a central plank of the argument that Iraq was a lethal and imminent threat to the world was disowned by President George Bush's officials in Vienna even as the build-up for war was reaching its peak.

In February, State Department officials finally handed the UN International Atomic Energy Agency intelligence documents purporting to show an attempted uranium deal between Iraq and Niger. But yesterday the diplomats' private assessment was revealed to have been that the Niger connection was fraudulent.

Not until a month later did the world learn from Mohamed al-Baradei, the head of the IAEA, that the documents were crude forgeries. By that stage the spectre of Saddam Hussein developing nuclear weapons had already helped to persuade wavering public opinion in the US and UK to back the drive to war. As late as mid-March, the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said: "It's only a matter of time until [Saddam Hussein] acquires nuclear weapons."

The first official explanation from the US for its gullibility over Niger was that "we fell for it". This is now known to be a falsehood because CIA analysts and the State Department had already informed the Bush administration a year earlier that the Niger allegations were bogus. This week, the White House belatedly admitted that President Bush should not have included the discredited intelligence claims that Saddam had been seeking to buy uranium in Africa in his State of the Union address at the end of January.

But Tony Blair was adamant in testimony this week that the UK had "separate intelligence" on Iraqi attempts to import uranium from Africa. Last night, the Foreign Office stated that Britain's information was based on "additional evidence other than documents, forged or genuine".

Britain has not handed this "evidence" to the IAEA for assessment, despite its obligations under the mandatory UN Security Council resolution 1441 to do so. The Foreign Office maintained last night that "we comply fully with our obligations to provide evidence with the IAEA" but that "in the case of uranium from Niger, we did not have any UK-originated intelligence to pass on".

A UN diplomatic source told The Independent that the UK position was "incredible". Another diplomatic source said: "The only concrete evidence the UN got was the Niger set of letters [subsequently proved to be forgeries] and it was told that there was nothing else."

In a letter to the US congressman Henry Waxman - who has been at the forefront of those questioning the White House's evidence - Paul Kelly, the State Department's assistant secretary for legal affairs, pointed out that when it passed the documents to the UN's Iraq Nuclear Verification Officer in Vienna, it inserted a caveat. Mr Kelly wrote: "[It] included the following qualification: 'We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims'."

Mr Baradei told the Security Council in March: "Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents - which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger - are in fact not authentic."

On 10 June, the Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien said that "the Government shared all relevant information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction with the weapons inspection teams from both Unmovic and the IAEA". But less than a month later the Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane said: "The UK Government did not pass to the IAEA any information on Iraqi attempts to procure uranium."

MPs expressed anger yesterday over the latest twist in the Niger affair, warning that it cast fresh doubts over the credibility of Mr Blair's allegations.

Peter Kilfoyle, the former Labour armed forces minister, said: "This just adds to the doubts. The Americans have accepted that the information was dodgy.

"It beggars belief that the Prime Minister still thinks this information is reliable."

Six backbenchers signed a Commons motion questioning "why the UK Government has not submitted the evidence, upon which it bases its assessment, to IAEA scrutiny, in line with its obligations under Security Council resolutions".

Original URL: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/story.jsp?story=423258

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