Iraqi nuke hawk went to Niger

Terry Jeffrey

7/30/2003 12:00:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

Wissam al Zahawie, the Iraqi official whom the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says went on a "trade mission" to uranium-exporting Niger in 1999, had a record of promoting resentment against America and Israel and of making Iraq's case for building a nuclear bomb.

Zahawie's record raises questions about the thoroughness of the IAEA investigation of his trip to Niger, and its candor in reporting the findings of that investigation.

At a 1995 U.N. conference on extending the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Zahawie (sometimes spelled "Zahawi") argued that unless Israel was stripped of nuclear weapons, other states would need to engage in "a secret or public" arms race to "restore a certain balance."

In an official U.N. summary of the April 24, 1995, session of this conference -- provided to me by the United Nations Library -- Zahawie sometimes referred to Israel as the "entity." "In that entity," the summary cites him as saying, "there was a powerful opposition party which was expected to win the forthcoming elections and which was urging that not a single inch of the occupied territories should be surrendered, and was ready, in its fanaticism, to go to any lengths, whatever the cost. It was not hard to see what that party would do with its nuclear bomb."

"(B)y exempting one State (Israel) from applying the provisions of the Treaty while expecting others to respect it forever," the U.N. summary cites Zahawie as saying, "there would inevitably be attempts to restore a certain balance. That meant an arms race, whether secret or public."

"Efforts must therefore be made either to establish equity and equilibrium," the U.N. summary reports Zahawie as saying, "or -- preferably -- to attain the ultimate goal sought by all mankind, namely the complete and permanent elimination of the nuclear threat."

Citing what he characterized as belligerent statements by various U.S. leaders of the Cold War era, Zahawie argued that the U.S. refrained from using nuclear weapons only out of fear of Soviet retaliation. "Apparently, the military and civilian leaders of the United States were very attached to the idea of atomic bombing designed to destroy a city or an entire country, since their experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," the U.N. summary reports him saying.

"If there had been any equilibrium at the beginning," it cites him as saying, "the world would not have experienced the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Zahawie's belligerence did not go unnoticed at the time. "Iraq's delegate at the conference, Wissam Al-Zahawi," reported Agence France Presse, "warned that if the international community allowed Israel to remain outside the NPT it would lead to 'inevitable attempts' to reestablish 'some kind of equilibrium' in the region, followed by a 'secret or open' arms race."

In a letter published on Nov. 12, 1997, in the International Herald Tribune, Zahawie, identified as Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, was more direct. "Iraq has shown that there are Arabs who refuse to bow to American bullying," he wrote. "It has challenged a Zionist-American diktat by trying to achieve the forbidden strategic balance that would enable Arabs to resist Israeli aggression."

In a letter published in the International Herald Tribune on Feb. 10, 1998, he objected to columns by William Safire and Thomas Friedman that advocated the use of force to disarm Saddam. "The present rabid braying and warmongering will surely serve to stiffen Iraqis' resolve, to increase their hatred of their American tormentors and to rally people around their president," he wrote.

On December 30, 1999, 10 months after his trade mission to Niger, the International Herald Tribune published a letter from Zahawie objecting to resumption of U.N. weapons inspections. "It should come as no surprise that Iraq should resist the return of the so-called inspectors who were relaying to the United States and Britain the information they need to choose the targets for their systematic bombing of Iraq," Zahawie wrote.

But Zahawie won attention in the United Nations, and the IAEA, long before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait sparked conflict between Iraq and the United States. On November 12, 1981, in a surprise maneuver, Iraq won a vote in the General Assembly inserting an amendment condemning Israel's destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor into a routine declaration on the IAEA. The Associated Press quoted Zahawie as saying, "The Zionist act of aggression is also an attack against the IAEA."

In 1984, he tried to block Israeli President Chaim Herzog from speaking to the General Assembly. "Wissam Zahawie of Iraq objected on the ground that, according to United Nations resolutions, Israel's claim that Jerusalem was its capital was 'null and void,'" reported The New York Times.

In the March 7 report to the Security Council in which he revealed that documents purporting to show an Iraq-Niger uranium deal were forgeries, IAEA General Director Mohamed ElBaradei also mentioned that an Iraqi official had visited Niger in 1999. But he did not name Zahawie as that official and did not state that Zahawie was on a trade mission.

Given Zahawie's record, why did ElBaradei make these omissions?

In this column last week, I reported that IAEA Senior Information Officer Melissa Fleming, in response to written questions from me, did state that Zahawie was the Iraqi official who went to Niger in 1999. He went, she said, as "a part of a trade mission and also he was accredited to Niger as Ambassador." IAEA, she said, had interviewed him in Baghdad in the presence of Iraqi monitors.

This week, I sent follow up questions to IAEA. Among them: What did Zahawie say Iraq hoped to

import from Niger? What other African countries did he visit? Did any Iraqis go with Zahawie, and did IAEA interview them? Was Zahawie, or any companion, ever involved in procuring any material relevant to Iraq's nuclear weapons program?

Ms. Fleming responded by e-mail. "I have discussed your questions with colleagues here and am afraid we will not be in a position to provide answers to them," she wrote. "This information was never in our reports to the Security Council and has not been made public. You are requesting confidential information from our investigations and interviews that we, as a general policy, do not provide unless it is felt the information is necessary to reveal to the Security Council or to IAEA member States."

On July 27, the London Sunday Times reported that Zahawie has written a letter to friends explaining his trip to Niger. "In February 1999, I was instructed to visit four west African countries to extend an invitation on behalf of the Iraqi president to their heads of state to visit Baghdad," the Times quotes the letter as saying. "I had no other instructions and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium."

The paper did not name who received the letter, or the place from which it was sent.