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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In other words, Zahawie was no ordinary diplomat, and his background was well known to those who study these things. (In a correspondence with Zahawie elicited by what I wrote about him in Slate, he has confirmed to me his participation in those nuclear-related conferences.)

It may have occurred to you to ask--as the committee resolutely does not ask itself--why it was that such a man was posted to the Holy See, and why Saddam Hussein's ambassador to the Vatican was sent to a small West African country in February 1999. Well, in that year every other Iraqi embassy in Western Europe was closed, or downgraded to "interest section" level, and the Holy See was the only exception. As Ekeus added to me in his letter: "A resident ambassador in Rome was ideally placed to undertake discreet and sensitive missions, especially as he was fully plugged into the intricacies of nuclear weapons diplomacy."

How does Wissam al-Zahawie himself answer the question: What is a diplomat so senior--with or without nuclear experience--doing on a mission to a country to which he is not accredited? He has given two answers. On the nuclear issue, he stated to Hassan Fattah, then of Time magazine and now of the New York Times, that he did not know that Niger produced for export the only thing that it does produce for export, namely uranium "yellowcake." This claim I think we can safely describe as risibly untrue. Trying another tack, he now says that the purpose of his trip was to persuade Niger's president to break the U.N. embargo on official flights to Baghdad, and to pay a personal visit there. This only raises the same question in a different form. Why send Iraq's only fully accredited European ambassador such a long way on such a mission? And what were Saddam Hussein and the Nigerien president supposed to discuss if such a visit were to come off? The price of goats? Finally, it's worth noting that even the announced purpose of the visit was to circumvent U.N. sanctions, if only on a small matter.

Then there is the question of timing. In February 1999, when Zahawie's visit took place, Saddam Hussein had only just expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraqi soil, and had in consequence suffered a December 1998 bombing from the Clinton administration. Iraq has yellowcake of its own but had bought extra supplies from Niger as early as 1981: It might have seemed a propitious moment to resume contact with West Africa. And this in turn raises the question: Was Niger willing to entertain offers from Iraq, or from anyone else, for what was and is its only valuable commodity?

According to Mark Huband, the national security correspondent of the Financial Times, in an important front-page article he wrote on June 28, 2004, the consensus among European intelligence services was that Niger was attempting to deal in yellowcake with anyone it could find, from North Korea to Iran. According to documents recovered from Saddam Hussein's office, the president of Niger proposed himself for a visit to Iraq in June 1997 (thus incidentally proving that plans for such trips can be made without sending a Vatican-based ambassador several thousand miles from his base). And according to a new book entitled Shopping For Bombs, by the BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera, another visitor to Niger in that very month of February 1999 was A.Q. Khan, whose black market in nuclear materials was then unknown outside a very small circle in his home country of Pakistan. According to a diary of the journey kept by Khan's associate Abu Bakr Siddiqui and obtained by Corera, "Niger has big uranium deposits." The next year, A.Q. Khan was back in Niger's capital. So we can say with some assurance that Niger's authorities (so briefly and so leniently investigated by Joseph Wilson) seem to have given at least the impression of being open for business. The notion that Niger was eager to pay "cash" for Iraqi oil is thus made even more dubious. Iraq had plenty of cash, as well as plenty of oil. Niger is cash-poor to say the very least. What currency, or medium of exchange, did it really have to offer in return?