16 Sep 2006

Hitchens on Iraq and the Niger Uranium

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Christopher Hitchens dissects the facile dismissal of Iraq seeking Niger uranium in the Pouting Spooks’ Senate Intelligence Committee report.

And, on page 54 we read, under the heading “Conclusions”:

Iraq had two contacts with Niger after 1998, but neither involved the purchase of uranium. The purpose of a visit to Niger by the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, was to invite the president of Niger to visit Iraq. The other visit involved discussions of a Nigerien oil purchase from Iraq.

Since the report does not trouble to supply any reasoning from the evidence to its conclusions, we are left to infer that there is nothing odd about Saddam Hussein’s envoy (to the Vatican) paying a visit to Niger, and nothing unusual about Niger’s desire to buy (“for cash”) crude oil from a country under international sanctions that is much less close and convenient a source of oil than, say, its neighbors Nigeria and Algeria.

That ambassador to the Vatican, it turns out, was none other than Wissam al-Zahawi. Ambassador Rolf Ekéus, head of the UNSCOM inspection team after the end of the first Gulf War, tells Hitchens:

When I first heard that it was Zahawie who had been to Niger, I thought well, then, that’s it. Conclusive.

One of my colleagues remembers Zahawie as Iraq’s delegate to the IAEA General Conference during the years 1982-84. One item on the agenda was the diplomatic and political fall-out of Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor (a centerpiece of Iraq’s nuclear weapons ambitions). . . . He was the under-secretary of the foreign ministry selected by Baghdad to represent Iraq on the most sensitive issue, the question of Iraq’s nuclear weapons ambitions. His participation as leader of the Iraqi delegation to the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference merely confirms his standing as Iraq’s top negotiator on nuclear weapons issues.

Hitchens sums it up.

The Senate report gives two versions of Zahawie’s name without ever once mentioning his significant background. It takes at face value his absurd claim about the supposedly innocent motive for his out-of-the-way trip. It accepts similarly bland assurances made by the government of Niger… It does not canvass the views of our allies, or of tried-and-tested experts like Ambassador Ekéus. It offers little evidence and no argument in support of its conclusions. It is a minor disgrace, but a disgrace nevertheless.

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