The diplomat, the forgery and the suspect case for war

In an exclusive interview with Raymond Whitaker, Wissam al-Zahawie reveals the extraordinary chain of events that put him in the frame as a trigger for the war on Iraq
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"It was a routine assignment," said Wissam al-Zahawie. "I never had any idea it would become a cause célèbre."

The retired Iraqi diplomat, a courtly 73, was on a private visit to London last week, describing how a trip he made to the dusty West African state of Niger four and a half years ago has put him at the centre of the row over his country's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and the suspicion that Britain and America went to war on a lie.

In 1999 Mr Zahawie was the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, his final posting in a long diplomatic career that began in 1955 under the monarchy. He served in Vienna and Ankara among other capitals, and was in the London embassy from 1960 to 1963. In the 1970s he was at Iraq's mission to the United Nations in New York; when his nation took a turn on the Security Council, he sat at the top table on a few occasions.

"In February 1999, I was instructed to visit four West African countries to extend an invitation on behalf of the Iraqi President to their heads of state to visit Baghdad," Mr Zahawie wrote in an account of his experiences. "Niger was my first stop." He went on to Burkina Faso, Benin and Congo-Brazzaville, but the President of Niger, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, was the only one to accept.

"He promised to visit Baghdad in early April," said Mr Zahawie. "Sadly, he was assassinated before he could fulfil his promise. We got on well when we met. He asked me not to meet any other Niger officials, specifically mentioning the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. I said my mission was only to meet him and extend the invitation, and that my government had not asked me to see anyone else. I was slightly mystified at the time, but in the light of what happened a few weeks later, I thought I understood."

Mr Mainassara was killed by his presidential guard, whose chief, Daouda Malam Wanke, then assumed power. Surprisingly, the new leader agreed less than two years later to step down and hold free elections, in which he did not stand.

The Iraqi diplomat says he assumed the invitations were aimed at breaking the embargo on high-level contacts with Iraq, which was being squeezed hard by UN sanctions. A Middle East analyst pointed out that Baghdad organised a trade fair in 1999 in an attempt to break sanctions, and was keen to get as many foreign leaders as possible to attend. "The thinking was that some of these countries were bound to get on the Security Council at some stage, and might cast their votes against sanctions," said the analyst.

Why was Mr Zahawie sent on this mission? "I assumed it was to spare someone a long journey from Baghdad," he said. "They would have had to make a 10-hour road trip across the desert to Jordan, then fly to Europe to reach somewhere which had flights to Niger. I myself had to go from Rome to Paris to get the plane to Niamey."

In 1999, he returned to Rome after an uncomfortable and unproductive odyssey and thought no more about it until February this year, when he was living in Jordan, having retired from the diplomatic service in 2001. "On 10 February, I received an urgent call from the Iraqi embassy in Amman, informing me that the Foreign Ministry wanted me back in Baghdad as soon as possible," he said. "I assumed it was connected with the impending visit by Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to the Vatican, where he met Pope John Paul - after I left Rome in 2000, I was not replaced. This impression was reinforced when I found Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, whom I knew from my time at the Vatican, on the flight to Baghdad."

Cardinal Etchegaray was acting as the Pope's personal emissary in a vain attempt to persuade Saddam Hussein "to co-operate with the UN on the basis of peace and international law".

But when Mr Zahawie arrived, he discovered it was the UN weapons inspectors who wanted to see him. "They were from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] - three men and two women. Only two of the men spoke, one was British, the other Canadian; the others did not utter a word. It turned out to be, in fact, more of an interrogation than an 'interview'. No other Iraqi official was present, but I insisted on having the conversation recorded on my own personal cassette recorder."

The inspectors asked in detail what he knew of any contacts between Iraq and Niger and the visits exchanged between officials from both countries. "Then they asked me about the purposes and the details of my own visit and the meeting with the President. They even asked whether he gave me any presents. I said yes: he told me he would like to give me a camel's saddle - a howdah. I thanked him, but said that I was afraid I could not take it along with me on my flights across the African continent. Nevertheless, when I got back to the government guest house, the howdah was there, looking like a small four-poster bed all wrapped up in gift paper. I still had to leave it behind.

"I think what my interrogators had in mind was more like some samples of uranium - to promote the sale of Niger's valuable natural resources."

The inspectors finally came around to the subject of documents, said Mr Zahawie, "and asked in particular whether I had signed a letter on 6 July 2000 to Niger concerning uranium. I said absolutely not, and if they had seen such a letter it must surely be a forgery.

"The questioning continued for more than an hour. They even asked about other officials working in the Iraq missions in Rome, and who kept the embassy seal. I explained that I myself kept the seal under lock and that it was used only to stamp official notes with no signature. Notes were only initialled, not signed, while letters were signed but not stamped with the seal. They did not seem to know of this standard procedure observed in all diplomatic correspondence. There was obviously something wrong with the document in their possession if it carried both the seal and a signature."

The retired ambassador was never allowed to see what documents the inspectors had, but learned the next day that the director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, was deeply disappointed with the results of the interview: "The feeling was that I knew more than I was willing to reveal." He immediately asked for another meeting with the inspectors, at which he rejected suggestions that he was being unhelpful and demanded that they produce the document they held. They refused; he said he could sue them for libel.

"The inspectors told their Iraqi liaison officer that my denials would be better substantiated if they could obtain an original facsimile of my signature. I sent them, the next day, copies of letters that I had written when I was still in Rome. Those letters must have convinced the IAEA team at long last that the document they had was indeed a forgery."

It has since been suggested that after Mr Zahawie left the Vatican in August 2000, someone might have used his official seal in a forgery. Asked about this, he told The Independent on Sunday: "There were no Iraqi diplomats remaining in Rome after I left, so I gave the seal to the accountant of the Sudanese embassy, where the Iraqi interests section was housed, because he had a safe and could lock it up."

On 7 March, Dr ElBaradei told the Security Council that UN and independent forensic experts had found that what purported to be Niger government documents, in which Mr Zahawie's name was mentioned, were "not authentic". That demolished a key pillar of the Anglo-American case for war, but by then it was too late. An invasion of Iraq was imminent; if anyone had intended the forged Niger documents to be a pretext for war, they had served their purpose.

But 100 days since the end of the war in Iraq, and with no weapons of mass destruction found, the episode is the subject of recriminations in Britain and the US. Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador, was sent by the CIA to Niger early last year to investigate the uranium-buying claims and reported they were groundless, but senior figures in Washington and London continued to repeat them. Britain made the allegation in its WMD dossier last September; so did the State Department a few weeks later. President Bush aired the claim in his State of the Union speech in January, attributing it to Britain.

It was only when Mr Wilson lost patience and spoke out about his mission that the apologies began. Both Mr Bush's spokesman and the head of the CIA have admitted that the uranium story should never have made it into the State of the Union address, with George Tenet, the CIA chief, accepting responsibility - though many in Washington see him as a fall guy whose warnings about the information were disregarded.

Only Britain has refused to withdraw or apologise, even after the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted this month that the CIA had sought to dissuade the Government from maintaining its uranium claim. He and Tony Blair continue to insist that Britain had "separate intelligence" proving the Niger connection, though the only hint they have given as to its nature is that it concerns a visit to the country by an Iraqi representative in 1999. "Former Niger government officials believed that this was in connection with the procurement of yellow cake [uranium]," according to Mr Straw, clinging to the last vestiges of credibility. Since by his own account Mr Zahawie met only the President of Niger, who died soon afterwards, the whole claim appears to be based on shaky supposition.

The former envoy certainly represented a loathsome regime for many years, but he points out that he has been allowed to come to Britain freely. "I never joined any party or political group in my life," he said. "I have never been involved in any secret negotiations. I am willing to co-operate with anyone who wants to see me and find out more."

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