Britain accused in spy row with Iraq

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The Independent Online
AS THE United Nations struggled yesterday to answer allegations that Unscom, its weapons inspection mission in Iraq, has been infiltrated by secret agents working for Washington, Baghdad last night accused the British government of sending its own spies to work under cover in its Kurdish provinces.

In a letter sent to the UN Security Council, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Mohammed al-Sahaf, claimed that British operatives had been deployed inside unidentified international groups working in northern Iraq without permission from Baghdad. UN officials believe the letter was referring to non-governmental groups working to clear mines in the area, including the British-based Mines Advisory Group.

The UN now finds itself caught in a maelstrom of charges and counter- charges about alleged spying activities inside Iraq. In his letter, the Iraqi Foreign Minister said Baghdad had determined that the organisations in the north "are British and that their personnel includes spies and saboteurs who constitute a tool in the hand of the United Kingdom Government and its intelligence apparatus".

Claims that first surfaced on Wednesday concerning the alleged transfer of sensitive intelligence about Iraqi security arrangements from Unscom to the United States appeared in the meantime to gain new authority. US newspaper reports quoted several unnamed US officials confirming their veracity.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, said that a US warplane fired on an Iraqi anti- aircraft radar site in the northern no-fly zone yesterday morning. There were no casualties and all US planes returned to their base in Turkey. The incident was the fourth in 10 days.

On Wednesday, the Unscom chairman, Richard Butler, denied that information gathered by his inspectors had been conveyed to the US. The anonymous US officials quoted yesterday, however, said that Washington had indeed used intelligence gleaned from Unscom in the planning of the joint American and British bombing of Iraq last month. One report, in the New York Times, said the US had placed spies under cover inside Unscom to penetrate Iraq's security aparatus.

"If these allegations were true it would be damaging to the UN's disarmament effort worldwide," Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, commented. "The reports in today's papers appear to lend new credence to the claims."

The Wall Street Journal reported that an eavesdropping device supplied by the US to Unscom to help it crack the presidential communications of Saddam Hussein wasused to identify targets in December's attacks.

In a searing editorial, meanwhile, the Washington Post flatly accused Mr Annan and his advisers of leaking the allegations about the compromising of Unscom in a deliberate attempt to undermine Mr Butler and Unscom. "Annan and his team have turned on Ambassador Richard Butler, chief of the UN inspectors, and his entire team with ... pernicious tactics," the newspaper declared.

In a first indication that he may be tiring of the attacks on Unscom and on himself, Mr Butler told the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday that he is contemplating leaving his post on 30 June when his current contract expires. With both Russia and China openly calling for his resignation, however, it is questionable whether he will be able to hang on that long.

Scott Ritter, a former weapons inspector who resigned last August over what he said was inteference by Washington, said yesterday: "I think its quite obvious when you look at the facilities bombed in Operation Desert Fox that they were targeting locations based upon information that Unscom had developed."