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Home > War On Terror

Wissam al-Zahawie is the new Uri Geller

10 August 2003

Someone ought to write a book called The Epistemology of Iraq or something about all the fascinating examples of evidence and knowledge that the invasion and the occupation have thrown up.

Misrepresenting evidence, plagiarism, ambiguity, missing data, conflating issues... it's enough to give Wittgenstein a boner. Or a headache. Or both.

The case of Wissam al-Zahawie is another prime example. He's Iraq's former ambassasor to the Vatican and the guy that Jack Straw tried to accuse of importing evil Nigerian uranium for WMDs.

His apparent misdeeds bring to mind Uri Geller. Geller's schtick is the bending of cutlery. We know full well that there are myriad ways conjurers can fake-up the apparent bending of a spoon. What does this tell us? Nothing. You might suspect that this means that Geller is definitely a charlatan, but of course he might be replicating these magic tricks the hard way, using supernatural powers.

Same with Wissam al-Zahawie. The International Atomic Energy Agency received some documents where Zahawie was trying to get some uranium for Saddam's misdeeds. After looking at his real signature, they concluded that these were a forgery. There were plenty of other clues:

The letter, however, would have struck anyone familiar with Niger as very odd. The heading included the words Conseil Militaire Supreme, a body which had been abolished in May 1989. It was signed by the foreign minister, Allele Elhadj Habibou. In 15 seconds an advanced Google search result shows that he held the post in 1988-89.
This is intelligence, let's remember, that Bush described as "darn good".

We don't know who made up these fakes (Neil MacKay suggests bribed Nigerian officials), or who sent them to the IAEA. We do know that Downing Street says that

"In the 1980s Iraq purchased 270 tons of uranium from Niger. The reference in the dossier was based on intelligence drawn from more than one source, and was not based on the so-called documents put to the IAEA."

We know that uranium has been found in Iraq, but only, so far, the depleted uranium classified by the UN as a WMD and fired by British and American occupying forces.

But none of the Nigerian stuff. And no other evidence that anyone's seen of the deal. And so we might wonder why anyone would forge a document to prove something that could be proven otherwise. Especially since anyone in possession of the "independent intelligence" would be obliged under international law to show that to the IAEA.

And if you're really confident about the intelligence, why would you try and get the FT to finger France and/or Italy as the source?


And if you've got great sources, you oughtn't to have to resort to the awful CNN as an authority, as Straw does in a letter to the Foreign Affairs Select Ctte:

"We have now seen a detailed account of Ambassador Wilson's report. It does indeed describe the denials of Niger government officials in early 2002 that a contract had been concluded for the sale of yellowcake (uranium oxide) to Iraq.
But, as CNN have reported, Ambassador Wilson's report also noted that in 1999 an Iraqi delegation sought the expansion of trade links with Niger -- and that former Niger government officials believed that this was in connection with the procurement of yellowcake.
Uranium is Niger's main export. In other words, this element of Ambassador Wilson's report supports the statement in the government's dossier."

(For Jack's information, Nigerian uranium is all controlled by the French nuclear multinational Cogema, which says it has "at no point sold uranium from its mines in the Niger to Iraq".)

So we have a claim that has already been made by some liar or other, for which the War Cabinet are disowning responsibility, that's been backed up unconvincingly, and for which no evidence exists.

Now, the existence of the forgeries doesn't prove that the claim itself is untrue. But I think Geller's doing a better job of persuading people of his bona fides than Jack Straw.

p.s.: You can't help reading about "yellowcake" and not suspect that this is some kind of Chris Morris-copycat prank gone tragically wrong.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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