A former Iraqi official replies.

A former Iraqi official replies.

A former Iraqi official replies.

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June 14 2006 5:16 PM

Fighting-Back Words

A former Iraqi official replies.

The Fray has received a curious artifact responding belatedly to Christopher Hitchens' April 10 article, "Wowie Zahawie." The author of the post purports to be former Iraqi official Wissam al-Zahawie, whose activities in the 1990s form a basis for Hitchens' charge that Iraq was actively seeking to procure uranium from Niger after the first Gulf War. Though we cannot verify the identity of a Fray post's author, our crack team of forensic literary critics believes that its provenance is probably legitimate. (Click here for the reasons we believe the post to be genuine.)

Sorry everyone, but I think it is time to respond to Hitch-Hitch Hitchens who really got himself all hitched- up in knots trying to prove that "Wowie Zahawie" did go uranium shopping in Niger. Better late than never.

Hitchens' competence in concocting fictitious encounters, events and information are truly a source of wonder. I, the "man named Wissam al-Zahawie" am quite amazed to discover that I had told Rolf Ekeus, when I greeted him in Baghdad, that, now that he had "come to take away our assets" we could no longer be friends. Rolf Ekeus is an honourable man and our friendship, such as it was, continued during his chairmanship of the UN commission and we continued to have friendly lunches in New York when I attended UN meetings there. If the details of that greeting in Baghdad are attributable to Ekeus himself, then I am sure that he must have heard that comment from some other official directly involved in the question of armaments who considered weapons as an "asset": I was only involved in the political aspects of the UN operation.

Although I had attended conferences of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in the early 1980s when the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor was on the agenda, I was never "the Iraqi representative" to the Agency, nor was I "Iraq's senior public envoy for nuclear matters", I was only a member of the delegations to those meetings.

I am astounded at finding out that I was "in the room" during Joe Wilson's last meeting with Saddam Hussein. I have not read Wilson's book, but I'm sure that the under-secretary for foreign affairs who according to Hitchens, quoting Wilson, was present was not myself but Nizar Hamdoon. Although I was the senior under-secretary at the Foreign Ministry, there were four of us at the time, I was in charge of the departments dealing with international organizations and conferences. Hamdoon looked after bilateral affairs with western countries, the really sensitive relations entrusted only to senior officials who are Ba'ath party members. I was never a member.

In 1995, I did lead the Iraqi delegation, not to a "UN special session", but to a Conference on the Review and Extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. My statements were again, purely political; I spoke about the militarist American policies over the decades. I did not "speak heatedly about the urgent need to counterbalance Israel's nuclear capacity", but about the urgent need for the Americans not to obstruct UN calls on Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I am annexing my statements at that conference to prove my point.

I was appointed to the Vatican not in 1997, as Hitchens writes, but in 1986 as non-resident ambassador; and was appointed as the first Iraqi resident ambassador to the Vatican in 1994 after Pope Paul-John II had asked deputy prime-minister Tariq Aziz, on one of his official visits to the Vatican, why it is that Iraq had not appointed a resident ambassador. In fact, I was already retired from the service in 1993 but the Foreign Ministry had failed to inform the Vatican of the termination of my appointment, so I was recruited back into the service. I was appointed to the Vatican in the first place, not because it was a "very important and sensitive post" but exactly because it was nothing of the kind. The Ba'ath regime in Baghdad would never have appointed a non-Ba'athist as an ambassador to any important and sensitive post. The Vatican was deemed appropriate for me because it had no political, economic or military activities in which "sensitive" issues could be involved.

The allegation that I was a man much given to anti-Jewish tirades is an outrageous lie. I did denounce Zionism and Israel's Zionist policies, myths and fabrications whenever and wherever possible. To depict such criticism as being anti-Jewish is a libelous charge. Of course this is part of a vigorous Zionist campaign to equate Judaism with Zionism. Any anti-Zionist or anti-Israel criticism is to be banned as anti-Semitism. In my lifetime, I've had the privilege, and the honour, of having had many talks with the likes of Prof. Israel Shahak, Rabbi Elmer Berger, Alfred M. Lilienthal and Prof. Norton Mezvinsky, not to mention rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, among others, to know that there are many outstanding and venerable Jews who are more out-spoken and passionate in their denunciation and condemnation of Zionism than the most extreme Arab and Palestinian; as, in fact, there are many gentiles who could out-do Herzl himself in their fervent defense of Zionism.

In addition to the above-mentioned names, the writings of the likes of Ahad Ha'am, Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Morris Ernst and Moshe Menuhin; among the living writers we have Uri Avnery, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Lenni Brenner, John Rose, Simcha Flapan, Yehoshafat Harkabi, and still many others who provide ample evidence of the difference between being a Jew and becoming a Zionist. Four other writers, Prof. Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab world, and the article, Why Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews, (The International Herald Tribune, 4 February 2005), Naeim Giladi, author of Ben-Gurion's Scandals: How the Haganah and the Mossad Eliminated Jews, Nissim Rejwan author of The Jews of Iraq and the poet Amira Hess are all Jews of Iraqi origin. Giladi and Rejwan, like Menuhin and Shahak before them, were themselves former Zionists who turned vehemently anti-Zionist. Another book recently published, bears the title, Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews by Alan Hart (World Focus Publishing, Kent, England). He himself must be Jewish, for no Gentile would have the courage to write such a book for fear of being denounced as an anti-Semite or a Neo-Nazi, whereas Jewish critics of Zionism and Israel are merely dismissed as madmen (as Shahak was described) or as "self-hating Jews."

As for that ridiculous allegation that I hold "a standing ticket for Wagner performances at Bayreuth", I can only say that I wish I were able to afford such a luxury. In fact, I have been to Bayreuth only once, courtesy of the German Government, when Germany and Iraq were both members of the UN Security Council in 1975 and the German representative, Ambassador von Wechmar, invited a number of the other ambassadors interested in classical music to the festivals in Munich and Bayreuth. But Hitchens, having stated that I am "a man much given to anti-Jewish tirades", thought he would substantiate that charge by alleging that I am a regular visitor to Bayreuth, "actually as a fan of Das Rheingold and Gotterdammrung." Just in case the reader still didn't quite get the hint that I am anti-Semitic, Hitler is brought into the picture as supposedly another admirer of those operas too, although he "secretly preferred sickly kitsch like Franz Lehar." And just to set the record straight, I have never attended a performance of the full cycle of the Ring operas. In over twenty years of opera attendance, I've heard a single performance of Walkure in London, a Siegfried in New York and a Gotterdammerrung in Vienna, and not a single live performance of Rheingold. What we heard on my only visit to Bayreuth were Tristan, Parsifal and Die Meistersinger, none of which could by any stretch of imagination be interpreted as reflecting Wagner's anti-Semitism. I would like to assure that man Hitchens that I'm actually a fan of Bach, Mozart, the Italian be canto opera composers; and Wagner comes way down the list of other German, French or Russian composers whose works I enjoy.

And what proof does Hitchens have to substantiate his other ludicrous fabrications? He offers the drivel I mention above as "the plain set of established facts in my first three paragraphs above", which according to Hitchens reveal "such an amazingly sinister pattern" that "no responsible American administration could have overlooked".

Although my familiarity with Baathist publications is far from encyclopedic, I have never come across what Hitchens states as the "declared ambition to equip the technicians referred to openly in the Baathist press as "nuclear mujahideen". I very much doubt that there was such an open declaration.

Hitchens further alleges that "the veteran diplomat has spent the eight months since President Bush's speech trying to set the record straight and clear his name." The facts are that I had given only one interview to Raymond Whitaker of the Independent on Sunday when he told me that Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was still insisting that the British government had other document/ documents concerning the Niger uranium deal. That allegation, new to me, prompted me to give the interview which appeared in the August 10, 2003 issue of the weekly. My only other "exclusive" interview was with Time magazine because the writer, Hassan Fattah, is a personal friend and I did not want to refuse his request. Meanwhile I had twice declined offers from the BBC to appear on their Panorama programme, (once in Amman and again in London) as I had also declined requests to appear on their Newsnight and Hard Talk programmes. That is hardly spending "eight months trying to clear" my name. There certainly is no reason for me to try to "clear my name" anyway.

If I had gone to Niger to discuss, or to sign an agreement on the purchase of uranium, there is nothing, especially since the fall of the Baath regime, to prevent me from saying so. It constitutes no crime for which I could be indicted, and it could certainly have put me in the good books of the Americans, the British and the Italians who were involved in the story. I had offered, since that Independent on Sunday interview of 10 August 2003, my readiness to meet with any official from any one of the countries mentioned and explain and answer any enquiries about my mission to Niger. I thought that they would really be interested to find out the truth behind the forgeries—if they really believed that they were misled by forgeries and incompetent intelligence services. I wanted those governments to know that I was not interested in a media campaign to challenge their allegations. No official ever approached me nor any of the governments showed any interest in my offers of cooperation. That can only mean that they already knew all that was there to know about the truth behind the forgeries.

So, in conclusion, I have no reason whatever to tell other than the truth about my visit to Niger; nor can I see any reason why the Americans or the British would try to hide the "genuine document" concocted by Hitchens' imagination, which, in fact, they seemed to need so desperately as conclusive evidence of the existence of Saddam's nuclear programme.

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Discussion of Hitchens' "Fighting Words" column or this post can be found in the Fighting Words Fray.

Geoffrey Andersen, co-editor of the Fray, is a law student based in California.