Intelligence backs claims Iraq had talks on uranium





By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 28 June 2004

Illicit sales of uranium from Niger were being negotiated with five states including Iraq at least three years before the US-led invasion, according to senior European intelligence officials.

Intelligence officers learned between 1999 and 2001 that uranium smugglers planned to sell illicitly mined Nigerien uranium ore, or refined ore called yellow cake, to Iran, Libya, China, North Korea and Iraq.

These claims support the assertion in the British government dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme in September 2002 that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from an African country, confirmed later as Niger. George W. Bush, US president, referred to the issue in his State of the Union address in January 2003.

The claim that the illicit export of uranium was under discussion was widely dismissed when letters referring to the sales, apparently sent by a Nigerien official to a senior official in Saddam Hussein’s regime, were proved by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be fakes. This embarrassed the US and led the administration to reverse its claim.

But European intelligence officials have confirmed that information provided by human intelligence sources during an operation in Europe and Africa produced sufficient evidence for them to believe that Niger was the centre of a clandestine international trade in uranium.

Officials said the fake documents, which emerged in October 2002 and have been traced to an Italian with a record for extortion and deception, added little to the picture from human intelligence and were only given weight by the Bush administration.

According to a senior counter-proliferation official, meetings between Niger officials and would-be buyers from the five countries were held in several European countries, including Italy. Although the European intelligence material suggests a proactive role by the sellers of the uranium, intelligence officials say that Iraq actively sought supplies.

Intelligence officers were convinced that the uranium would be smuggled from abandoned mines in Niger, circumventing official export controls. “The sources were trustworthy. There were several sources, and they were reliable sources,” an official involved in the European intelligence gathering operation said.

The UK government used the details in its Iraq weapons dossier after concluding that it corresponded with other information it possessed, including evidence gathered by GCHQ, the eavesdropping centre, of a visit to Niger by an Iraqi official.

In spite of evidence that the illicit market supplied at least two of the five countries, it is unclear whether talks with Iraq led to exports being made.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.