How 'fishing' trip in Iraq led to £1.5m court case

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The Independent Online

When David Blair picked his way through the debris of the looted, burnt-out foreign ministry building in Baghdad shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he was embarking on a journalistic fishing expedition of epic proportions.

Reporters had spent previous days rummaging through the various abandoned official buildings but found nothing more than ruined paperwork and damaged furniture.

The Daily Telegraph's correspondent was faced with hundreds of boxes containing thousands of official documents. He was looking for anything relating to Tony Blair. What he found instead, in a box marked Britain, was a memo and two letters allegedly relating to George Galloway - one of the leading opponents of the Iraq war. He took the documents away and with the help of his translator, painstakingly worked through the papers.

What most excited him was a confidential memorandum apparently written by the head of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret service. It purported to claim that the British MP had demanded a greater cut of Iraq's exports under the United Nations' oil-for-food programme. It also claimed he sought confidential assistance for the charity he had founded to help sick Iraqi children and oppose sanctions, the Mariam Appeal. The document alleged that Mr Galloway had already taken a cut of 10 to 15 cents per unit from 3 million barrels of oil exchanged under the scheme over the past six months.

Also among the files was a letter from Tariq Aziz, Iraq's former deputy prime minister and another, purporting to be signed by Mr Galloway, appointing a Jordanian businessman as the representative of his appeal in Baghdad.

Mr Blair was convinced of the authenticity of the documents because, he said, they were officially catalogued, bound with a distinctive white cord and knot, and bore the official Iraqi crest. They were filed in date order and the documents were written on paper of matching quality, bearing similar signatures. It was simply too much for Mr Blair to believe he could be the victim of such an elaborate hoax. But ever cautious, he waited until he was sure before telling his newsdesk in London what he had discovered.

The Daily Telegraph's acting editor, Neil Darbyshire, decided to proceed with the story and some of the allegations were put to Mr Galloway, who was staying at his holiday home in the Algarve, by Andrew Sparrow, a political reporter. The MP dismissed the documents as fakes and forgeries. Crucially, he was never shown the paperwork nor were they read to him. Over the next two issues the newspaper devoted 13 pages to the story, and it was followed by other newspapers and broadcast media around the world.

On the first day, the Telegraph's front-page headline read: "Galloway was in Saddam's pay, say secret Iraqi documents". It claimed the documents showed he had profited to the tune of £375,000, in effect denying the Iraqi people food and medicine.

A few days later The Christian Science Monitor in Boston published a story, based on separate documents allegedly found in the home of Saddam's son Qusay. These claimed he had received a further $10m (£5.2m) from the regime. But the newspaper was forced to apologise to Mr Galloway in June 2003; it was the victim of a trade in forged documents. In March this year Mr Galloway accepted undisclosed damages from the Monitor at the High Court in London.

The Telegraph was at pains during the libel trial to point out that it did not have a vendetta against Mr Galloway.

Mr Galloway's opposition to the war and the damaging allegations in the Telegraph led to his expulsion from the Labour Party in October last year. He has continued to sit in Parliament under the name of the Respect coalition.

A parliamentary investigation into his links with Baghdad has been suspended during the libel trial. At the next election he intends to stand in Bethnal Green and Bow, in east London, against the Labour incumbent, Oona King.

Leading article, page 38