Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Niger Uranium, Some Background III

The Privy Counsellors’ Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (the “Lord Butler Report,” July 14, 2004, pp. 121-5)


490. There has been significant controversy surrounding the reliability of Government statements about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa. We have therefore studied this issue in detail.

491. Natural uranium is the necessary starting point for all nuclear developments (whether for weapons or civil power). In the late 1970s, Iraq obtained large quantities of uranium ore from Niger, Portugal and Brazil. By the mid-1980s, however, Iraq had become selfsufficient in uranium ore, which was a by-product of indigenous phosphate mines at Akashat and purifying plants at Al Qaim and Al Jazira which extracted and purified the
uranium ore for subsequent use in nuclear enrichment processes.

492. In the course of the first Gulf war, the facilities involved in this indigenous route were severely damaged. Subsequently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervised the dismantlement of all the facilities that Iraq had built to process, enrich and fabricate uranium, and removed all potentially fissile material. Some unprocessed uranium ore was left in country, but under IAEA safeguards and subject to regular inspections. Iraq would therefore have had to seek imports of uranium or uranium ore if it wished to restart its nuclear programme covertly.

493. In early 1999, Iraqi officials visited a number of African countries, including Niger. The visit[*] was detected by intelligence, and some details were subsequently confirmed by Iraq. The purpose of the visit was not immediately known. But uranium ore accounts for almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports. Putting this together with past Iraqi purchases of uranium ore from Niger, the limitations faced by the Iraq regime on access to indigenous uranium ore and other evidence of Iraq seeking to restart its nuclear programme, the JIC judged that Iraqi purchase of uranium ore could have been the subject of discussions and noted in an assessment in December 2000 that:

. . . unconfirmed intelligence indicates Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium.
[JIC, 1 December 2000]

494. There was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, there was some evidence that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached.

495. During 2002, the UK received further intelligence from additional sources which identified the purpose of the visit to Niger as having been to negotiate the purchase of uranium ore, though there was disagreement as to whether a sale had been agreed and uranium shipped.

496. This evidence underlay the statement in the Executive Summary of the Government’s dossier of September 2002 that:

As a result of the intelligence we judge that Iraq has:

. . .

- tried covertly to acquire technology and materials which could be used in the production of nuclear weapons;

- sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,despite having no active civil nuclear power programme that could require it . . .

and in Chapter 3 of Part 1 of the Government’s dossier that:

The main conclusions are that:

. . .

- Saddam continues to attach great importance to the possession of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles which he regards as being the basis for Iraq’s regional power. He is determined to retain these capabilities;

. . .

- Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons, in breach of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and in breach of UNSCR 687. Uranium has been sought from Africa that has no civil nuclear application in Iraq.


Iraq’s known holdings of processed uranium are under IAEA supervision. But there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no active civil nuclear power programme or nuclear power plants and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.

497. In preparing the dossier, the UK consulted the US. The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought.

498. The range of evidence described above underlay the relevant passage in the Prime Minister’s statement in the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 that:

In addition,we know that Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, although we do not know whether he has been successful.

499. We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government’s dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

was well-founded.

500. We also note that, because the intelligence evidence was inconclusive, neither the Government’s dossier nor the Prime Minister went on to say that a deal between the Governments of Iraq and Niger for the supply of uranium had been signed, or uranium shipped.

501. We have been told that it was not until early 2003 that the British Government became aware that the US (and other states) had received from a journalistic source a number of documents alleged to cover the Iraqi procurement of uranium from Niger. Those documents were passed to the IAEA, which in its update report to the United Nations Security Council in March 2003 determined that the papers were forgeries:

The investigation was centred on documents provided by a number of States that pointed to an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the sale of uranium to Iraq between 1999 and 2001. The IAEA has discussed these reports with the Governments of Iraq and Niger, both of which have denied that any such activity took place. For its part, Iraq has provided the IAEA with a comprehensive explanation of its relations with Niger, and has described a visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999, which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports. The IAEA was able to review correspondence coming from various bodies of the Government of Niger, and to compare the form, format, contents and signatures of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documentation. Based on thorough analysis, the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts,that these documents, which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger, are in fact not authentic. We have therefore concluded that these specific allegations are unfounded.
[IAEA GOV/INF/2003/10 Annex of 7 March 2003]

502. We have asked the IAEA what were their grounds for concluding that the visit paid by an Iraqi official to Africa was not for the purpose of acquiring uranium. The IAEA said:

. . . the Director General explained in his report dated 7 March 2004 [sic] to the UN Security Council that Iraq ”described the visit by an Iraqi official to a number of African countries, including Niger, in February 1999,which Iraq thought might have given rise to the reports”. On a number of occasions in early 2003, including in a letter dated 1 February 2003,the IAEA requested Iraq to provide details of all meetings held between Iraqi officials and officials from Niger around the year 2000.

The Director of Iraq’s National Monitoring Directorate responded in a letter of 7 February 2003 to the Director of the IAEA’s Iraq Nuclear Verification Office. (It should be noted that at the time of Iraq’s response Iraq had not been provided by the IAEA with any details contained in documents alleging the existence of a uranium contract.)

The Iraqi response referred to above explained that,on 8 February 1999,Mr. Wissam Al Zahawie, Iraq’s then Ambassador to the Holy See, as part of a trip to four African countries, visited Niger as an envoy of the then President of Iraq to Mr. Ibrahim Bare, the then President of Niger, in order to deliver an official invitation for a visit to Iraq, planned for 20 to 30 April 1999. (N.B. Mr. Bare passed away on 9 April 1999.) According to the Iraqi information,no such presidential visit from Niger to Iraq took place before 2003.

The Iraqi authorities provided the IAEA with excerpts from Mr. Al Zahawie’s travel report to Niger. These excerpts support the above explanation by the Ambassador regarding the purpose of his visit to Niger and do not contain any references to discussions about uranium supply from Niger.

In order to further clarify the matter,the IAEA interviewed Mr. Al Zahawie on 12 February 2003. The information provided by the Ambassador about details about his 1999 trip to Africa also supported the information obtained previously by the Agency on this visit. The demeanour of the Ambassador and the general tone of the interview did not suggest that he was under particular pressure to hide or fabricate information.

Notwithstanding the information summarized above,and in view of the fact that the IAEA so far has not obtained any other related information than the forged documents,the IAEA is not in the position to demonstrate that Iraq never sought to import uranium in the past. This is the reason why the IAEA only concluded that it had ”no indication that Iraq attempted to import uranium since 1990” but it would ”follow up any additional evidence,if it emerges, relevant to efforts by Iraq to illicitly import nuclear materials”. So far no such additional information has been obtained by the Agency.

503. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.

b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.

c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government did not claim this.

d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

* This visit was separate from the Iraqi-Nigerien discussions, in the margins of the mid-1999 Organisation of African Unity meeting in Algiers, attested to by Ambassador Wilson in his book “The Politics of Truth” (Carroll & Graf, NY 2004, p28).

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