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U.S. Officials Back Away From Prewar Iraq Nuclear Claims

BY Admin  July 8, 2003 at 5:45 PM EDT

Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, ”At the time, the national intelligence estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction referred to attempts by Iraq to acquire uranium from several countries in Africa.”

“We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged.”

As part of their case for military action against Iraq, both President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair accused Saddam Hussein’s government of attempting to purchase uranium to fuel its illegal weapons program.

Prime Minister Blair first raised the issue publicly in September 2002, when he introduced an intelligence dossier that outlined the efforts of Iraq’s government to thwart international arms agreements and United Nations Resolutions.

“We know Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful,” Blair told parliament on Sept. 24, 2002.

In recent weeks, the parliament has investigated the British dossier and found that although Blair’s government did not mislead the legislative body, it did overstate some of the evidence.

The inquiry found that the British analysts had based much of the intelligence findings on a series of purported letters between Iraqi and Niger officials. Analysis by international inspectors later proved the documents were forged.

In the U.S., President Bush included the uranium purchase allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. He clearly has much to hide,” the president said on Jan. 28, 2003.

Inspectors, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mohamed ElBaradei, questioned the evidence of the African connection. On the same day President Bush included the Niger accusation in his speech to Congress, ElBaradei told the NewsHour there was no such evidence.

“There were reports about Iraq importing uranium from Africa, again, we are going through that, that investigation, and we haven’t seen any evidence,” ElBaradei told Jim Lehrer.

In recent days the allegation came under renewed press scrutiny when The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Joseph C. Wilson, a senior diplomat and Africa expert whom the White House dispatched to investigate the Niger reports.

Wilson wrote in a July 6, 2003 piece that he had traveled to Niger in early 2002 to examine the claims. He reported back to the White House and Central Intelligence Agency that it appeared highly unlikely that any sale of uranium to Iraq could have occurred.

“Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” Wilson wrote.

The following day, the White House press office issued a statement saying the president no longer backed the reports, but officials were quick to say that the administration had distanced itself from the Niger claim months ago.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “There is zero, nada, nothing new here.” He added that the Bush administration “long acknowledged” that information on the attempted purchases from Niger “did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect.”

Although officials at the White House acknowledged the lack of concrete evidence to back up the assertion, it remained unclear how the statement made its way into the president’s State of the Union.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified senior administration official as saying Tuesday that “knowing all that we know now, the reference to Iraq’s attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech.”