American and British allegations that Iraq tried to import uranium from the west African state of Niger - central to their case that Saddam Hussein was seeking to build nuclear weapons - suffered fresh damage last week.
In Washington, where Tony Blair and the US President, George Bush, reaffirmed their faith that the war in Iraq had removed the threat of weapons of mass destruction, it emerged that documents purporting to show an Iraqi uranium deal with Niger had been received by the US State Department last year, months earlier than had previously been admitted. When copies of the documents were finally handed over to the UN's nuclear agency, it quickly denounced them as obvious fakes.
The Bush administration had said that it did not see the documents until after 28 January, when the President declared in his State of the Union address that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium in Africa. But The Washington Post reported that the State Department distributed copies of the now-discredited documents nearly three months before Mr Bush's speech. The US waited even longer to share the information with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), finally handing it over in February.
The forged documents were originally sold to Italian intelligence by an African diplomat, but Seymour Hersh, the renowned American investigative journalist, advanced a startling new theory last week. The forgeries were so crude, Mr Hersh told a seminar in London, that he believed they could have been a hoax: one that deceived more people than its perpetrators could ever have imagined.
Elements were missing from crests on letterheads, the signature of Niger's President was transparently faked and one letter was attributed to a minister who left office in the 1980s. Other errors could be detected with a few minutes' research on the internet.
But Britain, cited in the State of the Union address as the source of the claim, insists it has "separate intelligence" on Iraq's quest for uranium in Africa. Mr Blair stuck to this line when he appeared with Mr Bush at a joint press conference in Washington last week. The Government has refused to tell the IAEA what it knows, however, arguing that the information came from a third country, and that it is up to that country to disclose it. But the IAEA says there is no such exemption from Britain's obligations under UN Security Council resolutions.
Both the content of the "separate intelligence" and its source have been the subject of much speculation. Suggestions in Whitehall last week that the information came from France, the former colonial master of Niger and still the ultimate owner of its uranium-mining industry, were strongly denied in Paris. Some analysts point to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, arguing Britain and the US rely on Mossad for much of their information on Africa, because the Israelis have far more intelligence assets there than they do. It was possible, they added, that Britain had fallen victim to disinformation concocted by Israel to discredit Iraq.
But while the source remains obscure, both Mr Blair and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, have hinted in recent days that their information is based on the supposed purpose of an Iraqi delegation that visited Niger in 1999.
A former US ambassador, Joseph Wilson, asked by the CIA to investigate the uranium claims, reported that Niger officials denied them.
But Mr Straw said: "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 that has undergone the first stage of refinement].
"Uranium is Niger's main export. In other words, this element of Ambassador Wilson's report supports the statement in the Government's [September] dossier [on Iraq's WMD]."
Mr Blair was even vaguer, telling a Commons questioner: "We know in the 1980s that Iraq purchased from Niger over 270 tons of uranium, and therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility - let's at least put it like this - that they went back to Niger again. That is why I stand by entirely the statement that was made in the September dossier." He made an almost identical statement in Washington.
"Basically the Government's 'information' appears to be nothing more than a deduction, and an unlikely one at that," said Glen Rangwala, a Cambridge University expert on WMD. "Mr Blair and Mr Straw are saying that if an Iraqi delegation went to Niger, it could have had no purpose other than to buy uranium.
"In fact, from 1999 onwards, Iraq sent delegations all over the world, including Africa, to sign free trade agreements. The Iraqis weren't really interested in trade, but in getting sanctions lifted. They were holding out the promise of cheap oil to buy the votes of poor countries which might end up on the Security Council. Their main strategy was to isolate the US and Britain on the sanctions issue."
John Large, a nuclear consultant, said that even if Iraq had succeeded in importing yellowcake, a vast amount of processing would have been necessary to extract weapons- grade uranium 235, requiring nuclear facilities Iraq was known not to have.
The enrichment plant, he said, would be "the size of 30 football pitches". Not only would it be hard to conceal from inspectors, it could easily have been spotted by spy satellites.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd