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White House admits Iraq intelligence error

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White House admits Iraq intelligence error

Sarah Left and agencies

Tuesday July 8, 2003

The White House has conceded for the first time that the president's assertion in the run up to war that Iraq recently had sought to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa was based on inaccurate information.

In his State of the Union address to the nation in January, George Bush repeated a claim, made in the British government's intelligence dossier, that Saddam Hussein had attempted to acquire uranium yellow cake from Africa.

Yesterday White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president's statement was incorrect because it was based on forged documents from the West African nation of Niger.

The Associated Press quoted Mr Fleischer as saying: "The president's statement was based on the predicate of the yellow cake from Niger. So given the fact that the report on the yellow cake did not turn out to be accurate, that is reflective of the president's broader statement."

The White House had not responded to Guardian Unlimited's phone calls by the time of publication.

The statement that the information was incorrect has a key bearing on the US and British justification for war on Iraq. Both countries had claimed that Saddam Hussein was attempting to build a nuclear weapons programme that could pose a threat to American and British interests, citing the attempted uranium purchase from Africa as proof.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in March that documents purporting to show that Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire uranium from Niger were forgeries. But until the White House statement yesterday, neither the US or British governments had acknowledged that these forged documents formed the basis of the intelligence, which had vaguely named Africa as the source of the uranium deal.

"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," a senior Bush administration official said in a statement quoted by the Washington Post.

Democratic representative Henry Waxman, long critical of the Niger-Iraq connection, responded: "The White House has finally formally conceded that the president's statement was false. That's an important first step. But for over three months I've been asking the president two simple questions of accountability: how did this happen and who did it. The president owes it to the American people to provide those answers."

The concession from the White House came as MPs continue to question the prime minister, Tony Blair, over the validity of claims contained in a September intelligence dossier about Iraq's weapons programmes, including that Iraq had sought to buy yellow cake from Africa.

Downing Street has thus far failed to explain the evidence it had relied upon for the uranium purchase claims.

Today the foreign office stressed that the evidence for the claim in the September dossier came from a number of sources.

"We stand by our assessment in the September dossier, and we still believe it today to be credible," said a foreign office spokesman.

But this morning Mr Blair played down the significance of the Niger claims.

"The Niger situation is not warranted by the actual facts - there was a historic link between Niger and Iraq, in the 1980s Iraq purchased 200 tonnes of uranium from Niger," he told the Commons liaison committee.

"You'd think it was a fantasy invented by the security services," he added, pointing out that Niger's main export is uranium.

Months before Downing Street published the claim, a US envoy was sent by the CIA to check out the possible deal between Iraq and Niger. He concluded that "it was highly doubtful any such transaction had ever taken place".

In a piece in the New York Times on Sunday, the envoy, Joseph Wilson, said his assessment of the Niger information was known to the CIA, the state department, and most likely the office of the vice president from the time of his return in March 2002.

Yet nearly a year after he had returned and briefed CIA officials, the assertion that Saddam was trying to obtain uranium from Africa was included in Mr Bush's State of the Union address.


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