Saddam's Niger Point-man Speaks

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Wissam al-Zahawie stopped in his tracks when he heard President Bush's State of the Union speech last January. Iraq, the President announced, had attempted to purchase "yellowcake" — milled uranium oxide, the building block of nuclear-reactor fuel — from an African country. And for a country that had no nuclear energy program and a track record of seeking weapons of mass destruction, such a claim could mean only one thing: that Saddam Hussein had revived his clandestine nuclear weapons program. In the buildup to the war, that sounded like a smoking gun. If only it were true.

For al-Zahawie, who had been Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican until 2000, President Bush's statement suggested an unlikely coincidence. The Iraq diplomat had, in 1999, visited Niger — a large-scale producer of yellowcake — during an unsuccessful tour to persuade African leaders to break the UN embargo and visit Iraq. "Could it be the same trip?" he wondered. But he tried to let it pass. After all, he had been in the Foreign Service since 1955, since the days of the monarchy, had no affiliation to any political movement and was generally respected in the diplomatic community. But al-Zahawie soon found himself at the center of the yellowcake scandal, mentioned in intelligence memos and in newspapers first by his job title, and eventually by name. Britain's September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons, cited by Bush in his address, linked al-Zahawie to Baghdad's alleged effort to import yellowcake. And the circumstantial evidence of his trip appeared to lend credence to the claim.

The veteran diplomat has spent the eight months since President Bush's speech trying to set the record straight and clear his name. In a rare interview with Time, al-Zahawie outlined how forgery and circumstantial evidence was used to talk up Iraq's nuclear weapons threat, and leave him holding the smoking gun.

He had been sent to Niger — as well as Benin, Burkina-Faso and Congo-Brazzaville — he explains, as part of an effort to convince African heads of state to visit Iraq. Such visits would break the embargo on flights to the country, and Baghdad hoped this would undermine the UN sanctions regime. The inspiration for the project, al-Zahawie suspects, had been recent visits by African leaders to Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi, which had broken the embargo on flights to that country.

"I took it to be a routine assignment," al-Zahawie notes. "I had done this sort of thing before, and I was senior in the foreign ministry." Plus, it was easier for al-Zahawie to do it from Rome than for any diplomat to come out of Baghdad.

Niger had been his first stop, where he spent an hour speaking with then President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara. Mainassara greeted al-Zahawie warmly, and turned out to be the only leader on his itinerary to accept Baghdad's invitation, promising to visit Saddam in April. The next day, al-Zahawie left to continue his trip, and was back at the Holy See in a matter of days.

Al-Zahawie proclaims innocence of Niger's status as one of the world's largest exporters of yellowcake — despite the fact that the West African nation had been Iraq's principal supplier during the 1980s. "Frankly, I didn't know that Niger produced uranium at all," he claims, emphasizing that he would have had no technical knowledge to even discuss such matters.

Mainassara, as it turned out, didn't live long enough to keep his promise to visit Saddam — he was assassinated in April 1999. Al-Zahawie thought nothing more of his fruitless African tour, and left his post in 2000, retiring in Amman, Jordan.

But last January, al-Zahawie was summoned back to Baghdad for what he had expected would be a request to help Iraq's Foreign Service plan for deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz's planned visit to the Vatican. Instead, upon landing in Baghdad, al-Zahawie was taken to meet with UN weapons inspectors. Five inspectors interviewed him in a 90-minute session, he says.

"They asked why I went (to Niger), why I was chosen, when I left Rome and whether there were any other Iraqi diplomats at the Vatican," he says. "But then they asked who had the seal of the embassy and where I had left it."

That's when al-Zahawie got wind of some kind of foul play.

Italy had handed over cables from al-Zahawie to the Niger government announcing the trip, and other documents had pointed to his presence in Niger. But the inspectors were particularly interested in a July 6, 2000, document bearing al-Zahawie's signature, concerning a proposed uranium transaction. The inspectors refused to show him the letter, he says, but al-Zahawie was sure he had never written it.

"If they had such a letter, it had to have been a forgery," he says.

The tell-tale signs of the forgery were quite obvious, he stresses. Diplomatic procedure typically called for official notes between Iraq and other governments to feature a government seal, but they are typically unsigned; correspondence between an ambassador and other dignitaries would be signed but would have no seal. The letter in question had both, the inspectors admitted.

"I realized the forgery when they asked this," al-Zahawie notes. "And when I left, I thought I had told them all there was to know.

Still, the inspectors brought him in for another meeting the next day, but after al-Zahawie protested, they ended the discussion by taking a copy of his signature for further investigation. In a matter of weeks, IAEA chairman Mohammed El-Baradei told the UN Security Council that the letters supposedly detailing a Niger-Iraq uranium transaction had been forgeries.

"I thought I was exonerated," al-Zahawie says. But in case any "official authorities" doubt his version, he invites them to meet with him to discuss the matter. More importantly, he has a question of his own: Who created the forged document bearing his signature, and why? The answer may, however, prove to be as elusive as Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.