25 July 2004
A leading nuclear expert has pointed out a technical error in the Butler report on WMD intelligence in Iraq, and criticised the committee's finding that intelligence on Saddam Hussein seeking uranium from Africa was "credible".
The Butler report demolished the most controversial allegation in the Government's September 2002 WMD dossier - that Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons in 45 minutes - but observers were surprised that the uranium claim passed scrutiny.
American investigators have dismissed the suggestion that Iraq was seeking uranium from the west African state of Niger in a quest for nuclear weapons, because it was based on forged documents. It was also inherently implausible, they added, since Iraq had 550 tons of "yellowcake" - uranium which has undergone the first stage of processing. But the Butler committee accepted the Government's contention that it had separate intelligence, which has never been disclosed, to support the claim.
Norman Dombey, retired professor of theoretical physics at Sussex University, said yesterday that the Butler report wrongly described Iraq's stocks of uranium as unprocessed. But Professor Dombey, credited with pointing out numerous flaws in the story of an Iraqi defector whose nuclear claims were widely circulated in the US during the 1990s, was more critical of the committee's intelligence findings on the Niger issue. "The Butler report says the claim was credible because an Iraqi diplomat visited Niger in 1999, and almost three-quarters of Niger's exports were uranium. But this is irrelevant, since France controls Niger's uranium mines," he said.
Last year this newspaper interviewed the now-retired diplomat, Wissam al-Zahawie, who said he had been sent on a tour of African countries in 1999 to invite their leaders to a trade fair in Iraq. In Niger he met only the President, who was assassinated two months later. British intelligence on the issue appears to be based entirely on speculation by other Niger officials about the purpose of Mr Zahawie's visit.
Professor Dombey pointed out that the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report in the US quoted widespread scepticism about the British information on Niger. One agency said "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are highly dubious". Asked by the committee to comment on Britain's WMD dossier, the deputy director of central intelligence, John McLaughlin, said "they stretched a little bit beyond where we would stretch" on the African uranium question, adding: "I think they reached a little bit on that one point." Another senior official singled out the same part of the dossier, saying: "They put more emphasis on the uranium acquisition in Africa than we would."
Despite doubts at the time, George Bush said in his January 2003 State of the Union address that "the British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa". The head of the CIA, George Tenet, who has since stepped down, apologised for its inclusion. But Britain stood by the claim, saying it was not based on the forged documents that had fooled other countries. Other US intelligence on the issue was conspicuously thin, the Senate committee noted.