As readers of the Fray will already have seen, I have once again drawn a response from Saddam Hussein's emissary to Niger. Dispel Wissam al-Zahawie's clouds of verbiage and you are left with the following:
1) Yes, he did represent Iraq at meetings of the International Atomic Energy Authority and at U.N. discussions on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
2) Yes, he has had dealings with Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, whose whole engagement with Iraq consisted of attempts, through UNSCOM, to disarm it.
3) Yes, he did attend a meeting of Hans Blix's WMD commission in Cairo, as a member of the Jordanian "entourage" if not "delegation."
Zahawie also stands by his earlier claim, which was that his visit to Niger in 1999 was solely for the purpose of persuading the Niger authorities to break the U.N. embargo on flights to Baghdad.
So, all you need to believe is that an Iraqi diplomat with experience in nuclear matters went all the way to a country to which he was not accredited; a country, furthermore, that exports mainly uranium, and that, although his visit was admittedly directed at sanctions-busting, it had nothing to do with sanctions on the acquisition of this material. At the time, Zahawie was the senior accredited Iraqi diplomat in Western Europe, the only one with full ambassador status. Could not an invitation to the president of Niger to fly to Baghdad have been conveyed just as easily by a cable from the Iraqi foreign ministry? What need of such a distinguished messenger?
Zahawie's uneasy conscience about this question is demonstrated by his resort to the old canard of the much-later-forged documents about his visit. These forgeries were circulated—whether for money or in order to discredit the original story is not yet known—long after British intelligence had informed Washington of Zahawie's trip. They have absolutely no bearing (unless as disinformation) on the authenticity of the original allegation.
Since I last had the pleasure of debating Zahawie on this, two further developments have come to light, both of them bearing on Niger. The security correspondent for BBC News, Gordon Corera, has published his illuminating book Shopping for Bombs, which is a detailed inquiry into the ramifications of the A.Q. Khan "Nukes 'R' Us" network. Recall that Zahawie's visit to Niger took place in February 1999. That was a busy month for the hospitality of the Niger authorities. It turns out that A.Q. Khan was visiting their capital also. Corera, who has been kind enough to make contact with me, has acquired the memoir of Abu Bakr Siddiqui, a member of Khan's traveling party, who reports on this trip that:
We left Dubai for Khartoum on 21 February 1999. The Education Minister of Sudan received the group and we were lodged at the State Guest House. After making a short stopover in a Nigerian city we reached Timbuktu on 24 February 1999. After spending a couple of days, we were on our way back and our first stop was Niamey, capital of Niger. Our next stop was N'Djamena, capital of Chad, where we were accorded official protocol. Next day, we flew to Khartoum. After Dr Khan attended to some business, we visited the Shifa factory that was destroyed last year by the American missiles. Dr Khan met the Sudanese President …
This was, in other words, by no means a sightseeing trip. The next year, according to Corera, the A.Q. Khan traveling circus "again went from Khartoum to Niamey in Niger where [former Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif's former military secretary welcomed the group." And, as Siddiqui points out in his diary of the trip, "Niger has big uranium deposits." Indeed, as Corera adds, it is a one-commodity country. I might add that, in February 1999, while A.Q. Khan was hopping from one rogue state to another (Sudan being Iraq's closest ally in the region, as well as the former patron of Osama Bin Laden), Saddam had just driven out the U.N. inspectors. Such an interesting time for a senior Iraqi to pick for a visit to an otherwise obscure African country, which had been one of Iraq's sources for uranium yellowcake since as far back as 1981.
The second discovery of interest comes by way of Ray Robison, formerly of the David Kay weapons inquiry, whose patient work I have mentioned before. He is currently engaged in the translation and collation of the captured documents from Saddam Hussein's presidency. One of the logbooks of correspondence deals specifically with Africa. Here is one entry:
Letter to the Presidency, secret and urgent, number B/2853/K June 4 1997.
The President of Niger, General Ibrahim Bare, informed us about his willingness to visit Iraq during the current month and he wants Iraq to set a date.
So, it seems that air travel between Niger and Iraq could indeed be discussed without all the bother of sending a senior nuclear-knowledgeable Iraqi official to Niamey. You can read the original here. (You can also follow Robison's other valuable work on the Saddam dossier.)
This is not the only such contact or approach that has been uncovered from the Niger end. Iraq had lots of off-the-record cash and lots of off-the-record cheap oil. What did Niger have to offer in return? (Remember that Joseph Wilson was recommended by his wife to investigate these people mainly on the grounds that he was so friendly with them!)
At a minimum, this would suggest that the Blair and Bush administrations were quite right to view the Iraq-Niger relationship with concern. At a maximum, it would suggest that the Niger connection was a great deal more significant—and more dangerous—than anyone has even suspected. (The A.Q. Khan network was not exposed until after Muammar Qaddafi's capitulation and the opening of the Libyan stockpiles, which in turn did not occur until after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown.)
In any conflict of evidence or interpretation between Rolf Ekeus and Wissam Zahawie, there cannot be a person living who would prefer Zahawie's word. In any evaluation of the Wilson visit to Niger, it must indeed be acknowledged that he found nothing—but only because he had neither the ability nor the intention to do so. This was yet another CIA "intelligence failure" in the making, and it follows that those who asked searching questions about the agency's role were doing exactly the right thing.