Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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July 29, 2003

Niger-Iraq Uranium Reports Involve Ongoing Libyan Deception Ops 

1. Highly-reliable sources within the Italian intelligence community have confirmed to this Service that the documents — subsequently demonstrated to have been forgeries — introduced by the US and UK governments showing a contact between the Nigerien and the Iraqi governments for the export of uranium were, in fact, produced by the Libyan Government. The documents were used in the State of the Union Address by US Pres. George W. Bush on January 28, 2003, and were widely interpreted as part of the casus belli underwhich the US-led Coalition attacked Iraq in March-April 2003. 

2. The Libyan External Security Organization (ESO) passed on, in a single transaction and through a Libyan intermediary, a file of forged documents to Italy’s SISMI (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare). According to Italian sources, the documents appeared to be part of a larger, ongoing Libyan double-deception operation designed to discredit US decisionmaking and the US leadership. The documents were designed to take issues which were in fact verifiable — or approximately verifiable — by US intelligence agencies and then provide seemingly valid collateral documentation. By then exposing the “valid collateral documentation” as fake, the premise of the intelligence — and the subsequent US policy — would then be undermined and discredited. 

3. US officials in December 2002 publicly claimed that Niger had signed an agreement in 2000 to sell Iraq 500 metric tons of a concentrated form of uranium known as yellowcake. The British Government also presented the IAEA with “Nigerien state documents” that were to prove Nigerien-Iraqi attempts to trade in uranium after the UN embargo on Iraq strictly forbade this. This “documentation” was seen as a key element in the US-UK quest to prove that Iraq was still trying to develop nuclear arms. Niger had supplied Iraq with yellowcake for its nuclear program in the 1980s, which at that time was legal. The British and US governments had tried to prove that Niger recently agreed to resume those shipments, illegal since 1991. US officials claim that Iraq imported uranium from Niger even after 1998 and that more shipments were planned in 2000.1 

4. On March 8, 2003, Mohamed El-Baradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN agency, declared that the documentation used by Pres. Bush in his January 28, 2003, speech was forged. The statement by Mr El-Baradei seemed to exonerate the Niger Government in the matter of alleged uranium sales to Iraq, and the Prime Minister of Niger, Hama Hamadou, in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, of London, and published on July 27, 2003, explicitly denied the allegations. 

5. Libyan and other sources have told this Service that, in fact, yellowcake was being procured (or at least had been the subject of agreements) from Niger for Iraq during the embargo period, but by the Libyan Government. The yellowcake was being used for weapons development programs by Iraq and Libya (and possibly Egypt, one of the partners in the strategic weapons program) being conducted by joint teams in the Libyan facilities at Sabha and Kufra.2 When asked whether the ESO documentation was designed to cover up and distract from Libyan involvement in the Iraqi nuclear program, one key Libyan source told this Service that this was only part of the objective. This Service was told that it was part of a broader plan, involving other documents and deception operations, designed to more comprehensively discredit US decisionmaking. This Service, on November 8, 2000, discussed how Iraq and Egypt had agreed with Libya in 1999 that Libya should act on behalf of all three countries to procure NoDong-1 strategic weapons-capable ballistic missiles from North Korea. The pattern for Libya-Iraq strategic weapons cooperation — which had been evident even before that time — was thus clearly established in the current context. 

6. It seems clear that the Iraqi Government did not need to negotiate directly with the Government of Niger for the procurement of yellowcake. Had it done so, this fact would almost certainly have come to the attention of the Nigerian Intelligence Agency (NIA), given the closeness of Niger-Nigeria relations, and it apparently did not. However, Libyan procurement of fissile material on behalf of Iraq was less noticeable. 

7. Italian sources confirmed to this Service that significant sections of the Italian Intelligence Community (IC) had been, at one time or another (including in this latest episode), working in cooperation with the Libyan Government and ESO, usually on the basis of payments made by the Libyans “for services rendered”. 

8. The question, at this stage, remains whether the Government of Niger was aware of the onward destination of some of the yellowcake provided to Libyan buyers, and whether or not the Libyan buyers significantly obfuscated their own identities in the procurement process. This would significantly impact how the US would deal with the Government of Niger. It should be expected that the US Government would also request assistance from the Nigerian Government in resolving the matter. The UK Government said that it had confirmation of the supply of yellowcake from Niger to Iraq from “other African intelligence services”, independent of the Italian-routed false documentation. 


1. In the early 1980s, Con Coughlin’s book, Saddam: King of Terror, noted, on p.188: “Before the war [Iran-Iraq] started, Saddam had been promised that the reactor would be ready to produce weapons grade material by July 1981. Although the French, responding to international pressure, were still dragging their feet on supplying Saddam with the enriched uranium necessary to power the Tammuz reactor cores … Iraq was also engaged in a worldwide search for uranium. 120 tons were acquired from Portugal in 1980, and a further 200 tons from Niger.”

2. Sabha, and the region around it, is home to the Libyan Strategic Industries complex and a variety of storage facilities for nuclear, chemical and biological material, laboratories and facilities. Global Information System (GIS) reported on January 7, 2002, that al-Kufra (aka al-Kafra) was the location of a warehouse on the road to Al-Sara military camp which included 1,800 barrels of chemical material and other biological materials which was transferred from Rabta and Tarhunah.