After-life of an arms fixer: A key figure in passing Western nuclear technology to Libya may have faked his death, Peter Koenig and Tim Kelsey report

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The Independent Online
THE GRAVE in Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey, is impressive, but not remarkable. A brick wall surrounds it, a heavy marble slab covers it, and the headstone declares that the man below, Ihsan Barbouti, was born in Baghdad in 1927 and died in London in 1990. Only in conversation with the cemetery's owner, Ramadan Houssein Guney, do its exceptional features emerge.

Beneath the slab, Mr Guney says, Barbouti's coffin is covered by 2ft of concrete and a quarter-inch steel mesh net. Former business associates of the Iraqi believe this is because he is not down there and he wants no one to find out.

They say the body which was subjected to a post-mortem examination under Barbouti's name, pronounced dead of a heart attack in Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton on 1 July 1990, was that of someone else. They believe Barbouti faked his death to escape German and US investigations into his activities as London fixer for Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.

'Is another man in the coffin?' Mr Guney asks. 'Perhaps if they dig, as some people wish, it will become clear.'

It is just one of the mysteries surrounding the London career of Ihsan Barbouti, a career which suggests that the British government's two-faced policy on trade with Iraq - exposed in the Matrix Churchill affair - may be part of a pattern of deception and equivocation in its dealings with the Arab world.

Officially, Libya has been virtually an enemy of this country for years. Diplomatic relations were broken off and arms sales banned in 1984, after WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot from inside the Libyan embassy. Following the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when a warrant for the arrest of two Libyan suspects was issued, Britain and the US pushed the UN into imposing economic sanctions until Libya surrendered them. But no clean cut was ever made in trade relations. Even though the Lockerbie suspects were never handed over, 5,000 British workers remain in Libya today. And Al Jawaby Oil Services, the procurement agent for Libya's state oil industry, still maintains a large office in London.

Barbouti's involvement in trade with Libya through London began at the lowest moment in the official relations between the two countries, at the time of the murder of WPC Fletcher. A Baghdad architect, he had arrived in London with his family in 1978 and moved into a house in Knightsbridge. A former associate, a Danish trader named Fred Fausing, says Barbouti then set himself up as a commodities broker - 'Oil, gold, anything.'

His contacts included a cousin, Anis Barbouti, who had studied nuclear physics at Nottingham University and was working for the Libyan Ministry of Atomic Energy. After introductions from Anis, Barbouti was sounded out to become a fixer for Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

As an architect, he was qualified to oversee construction projects in Libya requiring overseas expertise. With his international business contacts he was well placed to funnel Western technology to Libya.

On 16 June 1984 Barbouti signed a five-year contract with Libya's Ministry of Atomic Energy. The complex of companies he employed included a former Nazi chemist, a Japanese nuclear physicist, German construction crews, US engineers, Swiss bankers and Liechtenstein and Caribbean tax-haven lawyers. His headquarters remained London.

In 1986, Barbouti founded a British-registered company, IBI Incorporated (UK) Ltd. He built a factory at Rabta, near Tripoli. The Libyans said it was a pharmaceutical plant but in 1989 British and US officials said it was built to make nerve agents.

Barbouti was also involved in the construction of a nuclear facility in Libya. An architectural drawing obtained from IBI's headquarters shows that he was working on an extension to a power plant in Homs, Libya. A nuclear expert who has seen the drawing says it is consistent with a drawing for a plant to make 'heavy water' - used in nuclear reactors.

Anthony Owen, a British engineer who worked for Barbouti in 1985-86, said there was no question that the Iraqi was involved in a Libyan atomic bomb programme. He recalls one discussion in 1986: 'We were sitting in Barbouti's villa in Tripoli and the project manager for Rabta . . . said, 'What about the power for the heavy water?', which shocked the hell out of all of us . . . Dr Barbouti was really livid, because the Libyan had slipped it out in English and not mentioned it in Arabic.'

Much of what is known about Barbouti comes from Michael Johnston, a lawyer in Oklahoma City who became involved in 1988 when an Israeli- American client named Moshe Tal instructed him to sue Barbouti. Mr Tal claimed that the Iraqi was engaged in a fraudulent attempt to take control of his firm, called TK-7, to gain access to chemicals it made which could be used in Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.

Mr Johnston has since been retained by others who claim they were cheated by Barbouti, including Stuart Clelland, an engineer in Poole, Dorset, who was involved in a Barbouti scheme to transfer to Libya a pipe-lining technology which could be used in the nuclear industry. Mr Johnston also says he has obtained from a former IBI employee documents detailing hardened aircraft shelters in Iraq built by Barbouti.

Why was Barbouti allowed to pursue his activities from London for all those years, when they were in breach of Government policies? Mr Johnston believes there has been a cover-up by US and British officials because the facts about Barbouti expose both governments to charges of colluding with Libya in a manner reminiscent of the Matrix Churchill links with Iraq.

In 1990, armed with an American court order, Mr Johnston came to London and took two days of testimony from a reluctant Barbouti. The Iraqi admitted building the Rabta poison gas plant but insisted that the British authorities knew of his Libyan links and even had a copy of his contract with the Libyans.

Is Barbouti in that grave in Woking? Mr Johnston has written to the British consul in Houston pressing for an exhumation. He points out that his 'death' came just as the Iraqi was due to appear in a US court. At least one of his associates was also in trouble - Jurgen Hippensteil-Imhausen, a German,was jailed in Mannheim for helping build the Rabta plant in violation of German export law.

If Barbouti really faked his own death it would not have been the first time. Mr Fausing says that Barbouti told him he did just that in 1969 in Iraq, when he fell out with the regime there. Mr Owen says the Iraqi did it again in Paris in 1972.

The official British view, however, is firm. 'No investigation is currently under way,' said a Scotland Yard spokesman. 'Nor would we wish to go into any previous investigation.'

A full account of Peter Koenig and Tim Kelsey's investigation of British-Libyan trade links will be screened this Wednesday at 9pm in Channel 4's Frontline series.

(Photographs omitted)

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