The Magazine

Saddam's Man in Niger

What was the Iraqi regime's nuclear expert doing in Africa?

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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LET US CREDIT the Senate Intelligence Committee with almost getting the name right. On pages 25-26 of its latest report appears the following:

The head of Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program, Ja'far Diya' Ja'far, stated that after 1998, Iraq had two contacts with Niger and neither was regarding uranium. In 1999, Iraq's ambassador to the Holy See, Wissam Zahawie, traveled to Niger to invite the President of Niger to visit Iraq and, in 2001, a Nigerien minister visited Iraq to discuss purchasing petroleum. The ISG [Iraq Survey Group] recovered a draft contract between Niger and Iraq supporting the purchase of crude oil by Niger in exchange for cash.

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.

It takes only a very little work to find that neither of these assumptions is a safe one. To begin with, we do not owe the information about Wissam al-Zahawie's visit to Ja'far Diya' Ja'far, and we have no good reason to think that "the head of Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program" would in any case have special knowledge about Saddam Hussein's diplomacy in 1999. (Unless of course that diplomacy had something to do with nuclear matters.) The name of Zahawie was the original red flag that alerted British intelligence to the possibility of untoward Iraqi activity in West Africa, and thus precipitated the tip-off to Washington that ignited the dispute over evidence that still preoccupies us. At no stage does the committee's report give even a hint of what the nature of this concern might have been, so I shall begin by filling in that huge blank.

Ambassador Rolf Ekeus is quite possibly the world's most distinguished international civil servant when it comes to questions of disarmament and nonproliferation. A founder of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and a former ambassador of Sweden to the United Nations and to the United States, he has made the subject a lifelong specialty. Appointed by the U.N. to head the UNSCOM inspection team after the end of the first Gulf war, he is credited with uncovering, identifying, and destroying more covert Iraqi weaponry than had been taken out by the war itself.

So widely recognized was the quality of his performance that, when inspections were proposed again in 2000, even Kofi Annan proposed renominating him for the task. (The appointment of Ekeus was overruled by France and Russia, who insisted on Hans Blix.) I might add that the experience also introduced Ekeus to what might be called the underside of Iraqi tactics on WMD: He was once offered a straight bribe of $2.5 million, to his face, by Saddam's deputy Tariq Aziz, and he took part in the debriefing of the Kamel brothers--Saddam's in-laws--when they defected from Iraq in 1995 with conclusive evidence of a state-run concealment program for WMD facilities. Ekeus remembers being met by Zahawie when he first arrived in Baghdad to begin Iraq's post-1991 disarmament, and being told by him that, having met in the past as diplomats, they were now enemies.

"When I first heard that it was Zahawie who had been to Niger," he told me, "I thought well, then, that's it. Conclusive." I asked him if he would put his reasons in writing, and here they are:

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.