Galloway says alleged links to Saddam were 'dagger in my heart'

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The Independent Online

"Words," declared George Galloway loftily yesterday as he began his much-anticipated libel action against The Daily Telegraph, "are what this case is all about".

"Words," declared George Galloway loftily yesterday as he began his much-anticipated libel action against The Daily Telegraph, "are what this case is all about".

And during a bad-tempered cross examination over the former Labour MP's alleged secret links with Saddam Hussein, Mr Galloway clashed with counsel for the newspaper over a number of definitions.

There was the question of whether his holiday home in the Algarve was a villa or a more humble cottage, as he claimed. Then there was disagreement over whether it was a pin, or a needle upon which Mr Galloway's case was dancing, the MP again preferring the latter.

And perhaps most bruisingly - aside from acrimony over the quality and provenance of Mr Galloway's cigars - there was the issue of whether or not the word "gravamen" (the substantial cause of an action; the most serious part of a charge) had any place in the case against the veteran anti-war campaigner.

It had not, the MP insisted.

Such rancour peppered an uncompromising and confrontational performance from Mr Galloway, who told the court that allegations that he was in the pay of Saddam were a "deeply wounding dagger through my political heart". He taunted James Price QC, for the newspaper, over the "quality of his education", insisting that while he may not have enjoyed the benefits of a top-flight school, he did understand language. He said his denials of the newspaper's claims had been subjected to "ribaldry" and lost in a "blitz of headlines, copy and editorials".

The leader of the anti-war Respect coalition, who represents Glasgow Kelvin, was expelled from the Labour Party in October last year.

He is suing the newspaper, at a hearing which is expected to last five days, over a story which appeared in April 2003. Critical to the proceedings, which are being heard without a jury by Mr Justice Eady, will be the precedent of the case involving the former Irish premier Albert Reynolds. The trial centres on whether it is responsible journalism for the newspaper to have published the story based on the contents of documents discovered in the ruins of Baghdad after the war. The Telegraph claims qualified privilege - that it was in the public interest to publish the allegations.

Richard Rampton QC, for Mr Galloway, said his client had been a "longstanding opponent of tyranny and oppression" in Iraq. He had first visited the country in 1993 and five years later formed the Emergency Committee on Iraq to oppose "sanctions of all kinds, except military".

During one of his visits Mr Galloway met a child called Mariam who was suffering from cancer. He brought her back to Britain and established a fund called the Mariam Appeal which aimed to raise money for her treatment and to highlight the problems in Iraq.

"There is a shadowy figure in all of this, lurking in the background, and that is the dictator Saddam Hussein, the bloody-handed Saddam Hussein,'' said Mr Rampton. Mr Galloway had met the dictator twice, once showering him with "fawning praise", something he now admits was a mistake.

But as the threat of military action in the Gulf loomed, Mr Galloway became one of the leading figures in the Stop the War Coalition. After the toppling of Saddam, Telegraph reporter David Blair discovered documents in the bombed-out foreign ministry in Baghdad, including a letter purporting to be from Mr Galloway. He took them back to his hotel for examination. It was at this point, according to Mr Rampton: "The ball really starts rolling. It rolls so fast that it squashes Mr Galloway completely flat before he has seen it coming, before he has had any real notice of what he is in for."

On 21 April Mr Galloway, who was at his Algarve home, spoke to Andrew Sparrow, a Telegraph political reporter.

He held a 35-minute conversation with Mr Sparrow which focused on whether the Mariam Appeal had received funding from Baghdad - a claim denied by Mr Galloway. Later that evening the MP learned he was to be the subject of a major story in the newspaper and issued a press release denying any wrong-doing. Mr Galloway says the documents are either forgeries or were doctored.

The following day's front-page headline in the Telegraph ran: "Galloway was in Saddam's pay, say secret Iraqi documents." The story referred to the MP's luxury villa in Portugal, to which Mr Galloway retorted: "I don't have a £250,000 villa in the Algarve. I have an £80,000 cottage on a 100 per cent mortgage in the Algarve."

The newspaper claimed he had received at least £370,000 a year in cash, siphoned from the United Nations' oil for food programme. The story was accompanied, said Mr Rampton, by a "a great big picture of him smoking a fat cigar, no doubt from Havana, and no doubt bought from the proceeds of Saddam Hussein's regime".

He went on: "The message of that heading and that article backed up by the various other pieces in the same issue is this, it's unequivocal: Mr Galloway was in Saddam's pay."

Mr Rampton said there was a world of difference between the allegations put by Mr Sparrow and those contained in the newspaper. He said the newspaper alleged that Mr Galloway had "put the money into his own pocket to buy fat cigars and a villa in Portugal".

He said: "The truth is, they thought they had come on a huge scoop. They couldn't bear not to put it on the front page and all succeeding pages so as to show everybody what a clever newspaper they were and what a bad man Mr Galloway is," said Mr Rampton.

The case continues.