- VIENNA (Reuters) - A few hours and a simple internet
search was all it took for U.N. inspectors to realize documents backing
U.S. and British claims that Iraq had revived its nuclear program were
crude fakes, a U.N. official said.
- Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, a senior
official from the U.N. nuclear agency who saw the documents offered as
evidence that Iraq tried to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger, described
one as so badly forged his "jaw dropped.''
- "When (U.N. experts) started to look at them, after
a few hours of going at it with a critical eye things started to pop out,''
the official said, adding a more thorough investigation used up "resources,
time and energy we could have devoted elsewhere.''
- The United States first made the allegation that Iraq
had revived its nuclear program last fall when the CIA warned that Baghdad
``could make a nuclear weapon within a year'' if it acquired uranium. President
Bush found the proof credible enough to add it to his State of the Union
speech in January.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official
said the charge Iraq sought the uranium was to be the "stake in the
heart'' of Baghdad and "would have been as close to a smoking gun
as you could get'' because Iraq could only want it for weapons.
- OBVIOUS FAKES
- Once the IAEA got the documents -- which took months
-- French nuclear scientist Jacques Bautes, head of the U.N. Iraq Nuclear
Verification office, quickly saw they were fakes.
- Two documents were particularly bad. The first was a
letter from the president of Niger which referred to his authority under
the 1965 constitution. That constitution has been defunct for nearly four
years, the official said.
- There were other problems with the letter, including
an unsuccessful forgery of the president's signature.
- "It doesn't even look close to the signature of
the president. I'm not a (handwriting) expert but when I looked at it my
jaw dropped,'' the official said.
- Another letter about uranium dated October 2000 purportedly
came from Niger's foreign minister and was signed by a Mr. Alle Elhadj
Habibou, who has not been foreign minister since 1989.
- To make matters worse, the letterhead was out of date
and referred to Niger's ``Supreme Military Council'' from the pre-1999
era -- which would be like calling Russia the Soviet Union.
- After determining the documents were fakes, the IAEA
had a group of international forensics experts -- including people from
the U.S and Britain -- verify their findings. The panel unanimously agreed
with the IAEA.
- "We don't know who did it,'' the official said,
adding that it would be easy to come up with a long list of groups and
states which would like to malign the present Iraqi regime.
- The IAEA asked the U.S. and Britain if they had any other
evidence backing the claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium. The answer was
- IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei informed the U.N. Security
Council in early March that the Niger proof was fake and that three months
with 218 inspections at 141 sites had produced ``no evidence or plausible
indication'' Iraq had a nuclear program.
- But last week Vice President Dick Cheney repeated the
U.S. position and said that ElBaradei was wrong about Iraq.
- "We know (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) has been
absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe
he has in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons,'' he said.