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No Evidence that Iraq Sought Uranium from Africa, say Pentagon Sources - 2003-07-21

Defense and intelligence officials say no evidence has been found in Iraq to support allegations the regime of Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa for its nuclear weapons program, a controversial allegation made months ago by British and American political leaders.

The original charges about Iraq's purported efforts to acquire uranium in Africa for its nuclear program were based in part on what have since been discredited as fabricated documents provided by foreign intelligence sources.

But some U.S. and British officials, including Prime Minister Tony Blair and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have indicated they still believe the allegations are true.

Now, though, defense and intelligence officials say ongoing efforts to uncover corroborating evidence inside Iraq itself have so far proven fruitless.

One intelligence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, answers with a blunt "none whatsoever" when asked by VOA if any Iraqi documents have been found or information provided by Iraqi officials or scientists confirming a uranium procurement attempt by Baghdad, either in Niger or any other African country.

The disclosure comes as Democrats have expressed concern that the Bush administration may have deliberately created a "false impression" about the seriousness of the threat from Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons program.

The White House last week released part of an intelligence report compiled last year on that program. The report included a dissenting view from analysts at the U.S. State Department who labeled as "highly dubious" claims that Iraq was seeking natural uranium in Africa.

Defense intelligence officials have since indicated they shared that view.

The U.N. nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimates Iraq already had some 1.8 metric tons of low-enriched uranium and 500 tons of natural uranium, called yellowcake. Some of it had been legally acquired in West Africa more than two decades ago and was under IAEA seal.

Following this year's Iraq war, looters are reported to have entered the country's main nuclear site at Tuwaitha and some of the uranium was reported missing.

The IAEA estimates that at worst, only some 10 kilograms of uranium compounds went missing, an amount the U.N. nuclear agency says is not sensitive from a proliferation point of view.

Nevertheless, the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei has been pressing for stepped up measures to protect the remaining nuclear inventory.

U.S. defense sources now tell VOA preparations are under way to move the material out of Iraq.

There is no word on where the uranium will be taken or whether U.N. inspectors will oversee the transfer operation.