Is Niger the smoking gun?

Blair under fire as White House rejects British intelligence claiming Iraq tried to buy uranium
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Indy Politics

The White House has dealt a devastating blow to Tony Blair by rejecting as flawed British claims that Saddam Hussein attempted to buy uranium from Africa to restart his nuclear weapons programme.

The Bush administration was in full retreat yesterday with officials admitting that the allegation should not have been included in President George Bush's State of the Union address. The American admission represented the first serious split between London and Washington over the case against Saddam and exploded into a full-scale row in Westminster as Mr Blair told senior MPs that the Government was standing by its story.

Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour backbenchers demanded that Mr Blair release the intelligence behind the allegation to an independent inquiry.

In his address to Congress in January, Mr Bush said: "The British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But a statement approved by the White House on Monday said: "Knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech. There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made."

"In other words," a White House official told The New York Times, "we couldn't prove it and it might in fact be wrong."

The White House climbdown followed a sceptical report from the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and claims from the retired US ambassador Joseph Wilson that the allegations of a link between Niger and Saddam were false. He had been sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate possible links nine months before Mr Bush's address.

Mr Wilson first made his claims anonymously in The Independent on Sunday 10 days ago. He repeated the claims in The New York Times at the weekend in a signed article. "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted,"he said.

Monday was the first time the US had admitted publicly that key "evidence" backing the claim that Iraq was trying to "reconstitute its nuclear weapons programme" was false. The threat of Saddam acquiring nuclear weapons became central to the British and American governments' case for war. Tony Blair told MPs in September that Saddam was "actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability".

Mr Blair said yesterday the intelligence services were standing by their allegation that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium, despite a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in March dismissing the claims as based on crude forgeries. Questioned on the Niger affair by the Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Blair said the claims were based on multiple sources and did not rely on the forged documents obtained by the IAEA.

He said: "There was an historic link between Niger and Iraq. In the 1980s Iraq purchased somewhere in the region of 200 tons of uranium from Niger. The evidence that we had that the Iraqi government had gone back to try to purchase further amounts of uranium from Niger did not come from these so-called forged documents. They came from separate intelligence."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, renewed his call for an independent inquiry. He said: "Once again, the Prime Minister is making assertions about contested intelligence assessments. The Niger documents are known to have been falsified, yet Tony Blair continues to insist the intelligence was accurate. The Bush administration now appears to be backing away from these claims. Once again it raises the question: did we go to war on a false premise?"

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, added: "The only way that Tony Blair can establish the veracity of such intelligence information ... is to allow it to be examined in the context of an independent judicial inquiry. Given the total distrust of anything the Prime Minister says, it is vital for the re-establishment of the credibility of the intelligence services that this process is now undertaken."

Questioned in the Commons yesterday, Jack Straw said: "The information which was included in the dossier and assessed as reliable relating to the purchase of uranium - not that they had purchased it but Iraq had sought to purchase it - was based on sources quite separate than those based on the forged documents."

Mystery still surrounds the original source of the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Foreign Office officials have admitted that it was passed on by a foreign intelligence service but insist that it fitted a pattern of evidence that Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear weapons programme.

Ministers have confirmed that they have not passed information on Niger to the IAEA, despite a commitment to co-operate with the nuclear weapons inspectorate.

The Government received a boost in its dispute with the BBC over a report claiming Downing Street "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction with a claim that they could be deployed within 45 minutes. An official at the Ministry of Defence admitted meeting the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan a week before the claim was broadcast but denied making any comment on No 10's involvement.

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