'Niger was an ideal choice. We cannot defend ourselves easily'

A fan whirred through the heated gloom. On the couch a man in a gold suit leafed silently through the documents. Flanked by the personal secretary to the President of Niger, he shifted uneasily.

"No, never seen these," said Adamou Chekou, gesturing to the papers. "You can't expect me to comment on things I know nothing about."

But Mr Chekou seemed uniquely placed to explain these documents, ones that helped send the world to war in Iraq. In his hands were copies of letters used by Tony Blair and George Bush to prove that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wanted to build a nuclear bomb. They purported to show that Iraqi officials tried to buy uranium oxide, or "yellow cake", from Niger four years ago.

The problem was that they were clumsy fakes. Mr Bush has admitted he fell for a hoax. Mr Blair still insists he has "independent intelligence" to make the same case, though he has not said what it is.

But who concocted the fake letters, and why? Mr Chekou ought to have known, as they originated from Niger's Rome embassy when he was ambassador. But when I saw him at his home in a suburb of Niger's capital, Niamey, he claimed he knew nothing.

I was not made welcome. A soldier with an Uzi sub-machine gun tried to shoo me away. It was only when President Mamadou Tandja's secretary, Mahaman Ali, pulled up that I was allowed in.

But Mr Chekou could not help much. "Why get excited about something I don't know? We are like you, we get our information from the radio," he said.

Both he and Mr Ali said it was the first time the Niger government had seen the papers that thrust them into world headlines. They had not bothered to obtain copies, or to investigate whether a Niger official might be behind them. When I handed over copies downloaded from a local internet café, Mr Ali scanned them and scoffed at the errors, cutting the interview short.

The fakes that fooled the world's most powerful leaders are full of mistakes. Letterheads are mixed up, dates confused and the signatures look forged. One bore the name of a minister who had resigned 11 years earlier.

Western intelligence claims an "under-paid African diplomat" sold the forgeries to Italian intelligence for a few thousand dollars. The Italians were said to have passed the information to MI6, who passed it to the US, though Britain denies this, saying it did not see the fake documents until this year.

The question is whether the forgers came up with the complex scheme on their own, or whether someone with an interest in painting Saddam as a nuclear danger put them up to it.

The Niger government denies any involvement. "The whole thing is ridiculous," snorted the Minister of Mines and Energy, Rabiou Hassane Yari, during an interview as he returned to Niamey. "Even if we wanted to, we couldn't have pulled this off." He could think of only one explanation for the British and American folly. "They wanted to make war. They needed an argument. They found one."

The US embassy could not help explain how its government fell for the dud uranium yarn. No interview with any US official was possible, confirmed public information officer Lou Lantner. "I don't think we have anything to add," he said.

The US knew how unlikely it was that Niger sold uranium to Iraq because, in February 2002, the CIA dispatched a veteran Africa diplomat, Joseph Wilson, to investigate in Niamey. Mr Wilson concluded: "There's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired."

Niger's uranium industry is in effect under French control. Its two mines are run by Cogema, a French state company, and the entire output of about 3,000 tons a year is sent to France, Japan and Spain. From mine to port, the International Atomic Energy Agency monitors the shipments.

Nigeriens believe their country was used for this deception because it is poor. "We were an ideal choice. We cannot defend ourselves easily," said Issoufou Mahamadou, leader of the main opposition party.

But the mystery over the forgers and their motives remains. Niger is annoyed that it became entangled in the intrigue, but has done little to unravel it. Was it a huckster with an eye for easy money, or did larger powers hover in the background? Someone between Niamey and New York has the answer. But they are saying nothing for now.

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