The Niger timebomb

We have spoken to the Iraqi diplomat Britain accuses of trying to buy uranium for Saddam. If what he has told us is true, his evidence will blow apart one of Mr Blair's main justifications for war

The man accused by Britain of trying to buy uranium in Africa for Saddam Hussein's nuclear programme - one of the Government's main justifications for waging war on Iraq - has denied the allegation, saying he is the victim of a forgery.

Britain has remained undaunted by proof that documents purporting to show an Iraqi uranium deal with the West African state of Niger turned out to be fakes. While the US admits it should never have made allegations based on the documents, Britain insists it has "independent intelligence" about Iraq's quest for uranium, pointing out that an Iraqi delegation visited Niger in 1999.

One Foreign Office official said: "Niger has two main exports - uranium and chickens. The Iraqi delegation did not go to Niger for chickens."

But the man who made the trip, Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq's former ambassador to the Vatican, told The Independent on Sunday: "My only mission was to meet the President of Niger and invite him to visit Iraq. The invitation and the situation in Iraq resulting from the genocidal UN sanctions were all we talked about. I had no other instructions, and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium."

Mr Zahawie, 73, speaking to the British press for the first time, said in London: "I have been cleared by everyone else, including the US and the United Nations. I am surprised to hear there are still question marks over me in Britain. I am willing to co-operate with anyone who wants to see me and find out more."

The Government's September dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction said the regime "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa, despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it". The allegation found its way into President George Bush's State of the Union address in January. But as one element after another of this claim has been disproved, the Government has increasingly focused attention on Mr Zahawie's visit to Niger.

As The IoS first disclosed on 29 June, a former US ambassador, Joseph Wilson, was sent to Niger last year to investigate. He reported that there was nothing in the claims of a uranium deal, but the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said last month: "Ambassador Wilson's report also noted that in 1999 an Iraqi delegation sought the expansion of trade links with Niger. Uranium is Niger's main export ... this element of Ambassador Wilson's report supports the statement in the Government's dossier."

Mr Zahawie, who went to Niger in February 1999, said he knew of no other visit to the country that year by an Iraqi representative, and believed none had been there since.

The former ambassador believes suspicion fell on him because his name appeared in forged documents given to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Last week the IAEA confirmed that two interviews took place with Mr Zahawie in Baghdad this year.

Mr Zahawie said he was summoned to Baghdad in February from Jordan to meet a team of inspectors from the IAEA. He was asked whether he had signed a letter on 6 July 2000 to Niger concerning uranium. "I said absolutely not; if they had seen such a letter it must be a forgery."

Later he was asked for a facsimile of his signature. He provided copies of letters he had written in Rome, and "those letters must have convinced the IAEA team that the document they had was a forgery". In early March, on the eve of war in Iraq, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, told the UN Security Council that the Niger documents were "not authentic".

The ex-ambassador's account is the first indication the forgeries, thought to have been sold to Italian intelligence by an African diplomat, included a document purporting to come from the Iraqi side.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "In the 1980s Iraq purchased 270 tons of uranium from Niger. The reference in the dossier was based on intelligence drawn from more than one source, and was not based on the so-called documents put to the IAEA."

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook said: "It is long overdue for the Government to come clean about what is this corroboration on which they build such an extravagant castle. At least let them hand it over to the IAEA."

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