A former Iraqi general who disappeared from Denmark three days before the beginning of the war to oust Saddam Hussein is thought to be the man who passed on the notorious "45-minute" claim to British intelligence.
Nizar al-Khazraji, in his mid-60s, was the most senior military man to defect from the Iraqi regime. A Sunni Muslim former combat general with considerable support among the officer corps, he was considered by the CIA to be a potential replacement for Saddam if the army staged a coup.
General Khazraji was chief of staff during the war with Iran in the 1980s, but fell from favour with the dictator, apparently for advising him against the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He fled to Kurdish-held northern Iraq in 1995 and applied for political asylum in Denmark in 1999, after spending time in Syria and Jordan. But on 17 March last year he vanished, escaping a war crimes investigation, amid reports that he had been spirited away by the CIA.
The claim that Saddam could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so was the most dramatic and controversial in the Government's September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It has since emerged that the information came from "an established and reliable source" who had been reporting to MI6 for some years, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw - but he was acting as an intermediary for a serving officer in the Iraqi army, and had no means of checking it himself.
The Independent on Sunday has established at the highest level that the middleman, who had "military knowledge", was an Iraqi exile with "Scandinavian connections" who made contact with British intelligence after he left Iraq. He maintained links with serving officers in Saddam's military forces, but the fact that he was outside Iraq meant that the "45 minutes" information - said to have come from a full colonel or brigadier, but not the "Lieutenant-Colonel al-Dabbagh" named in some newspapers - failed to meet normal standards for assessing intelligence. It should not have been included in the dossier, especially since there was no supporting documentary evidence. It is understood that neither the source nor the intermediary will be produced before the Butler inquiry, which is examining the role of intelligence before the war.
General Khazraji is known to have had contacts with Western intelligence agencies after escaping from Iraq. According to the former United Nations arms inspector, Scott Ritter, he was debriefed in Jordan in 1996 by the CIA and Unscom, which carried out inspections in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. His relationship with the spy agency cooled, however, when he refused to join the exile organisation it favoured - the Iraqi National Accord, which is made up mainly of ex-officers. General Khazraji instead settled for a quiet existence in Soroe, some 50 miles from Copenhagen. He was forced out of his seclusion after a Kurdish exile who spotted him in the street accused him of being involved in the 1980s crackdown in Iraq, when thousands of Kurds were massacred and Halabja's population was wiped out with poison gas.
Although General Khazraji denied the charges, saying they were a smear by the Iraqi regime, the Danish authorities opened a war crimes investigation against him. In November 2002, he applied for permission to go to Saudi Arabia to take part in the campaign to oust Saddam, but was charged with war crimes and put under house arrest in Soroe.
General Khazraji declared in an interview the following month with the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat: "I am sure that as soon as we set foot in Iraq, military units will join us ... There are a large number of officers and soldiers who are ready to work with us." But the war crimes case prevented him attending an important meeting of Iraqi exiles in London which played a large part in determining the make-up of the governing council installed after the war.
The general was also a victim of political battles in Washington. The Pentagon, which backs Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, eclipsed rival forces in the Bush administration, including the CIA, in the struggle for influence in post-Saddam Iraq. But the CIA does not seem to have given up on General Khazraji, who had little trouble evading Danish surveillance. According to reports in Denmark, he was driven to an air base in Germany and flown to the Gulf.
Since then there have been conflicting reports on his whereabouts. During the war there were claims that he was in western Iraq, trying to rally the army against Saddam, and that he might have been killed. Other reports placed him in Kurdistan, but said he had been expelled at the instigation of the Americans. The Danish magistrate pursuing his case believes he is in the United Arab Emirates, and has complained that the authorities there are not co-operating with her, but a source in London said he "might have moved on" from the UAE.
The intermediary responsible for the "45 minutes" intelligence reaching London was said to have passed it on in good faith. It referred to battlefield weapons such as shells and mortars, but became inflated in the Government's WMD dossier, which made no mention of munitions. Highlighted four times in the dossier and in Tony Blair's speech presenting the document to Parliament, it resulted in headlines such as "Brits 45 minutes from doom" in The Sun, which said British servicemen and tourists in Cyprus were within range.
Doubts about the claim became public last year after Andrew Gilligan reported on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was the "classic example" of how the dossier had been "sexed up" to magnify the threat from Iraq. The Ministry of Defence weapons scientist Dr David Kelly committed suicide after being exposed as Mr Gilligan's source, leading to the Hutton inquiry into his death.Reuse content