U.S. and U.N. officials say the African country of Niger supplied Iraq with a key ingredient for its nuclear program two decades ago and recently agreed secretly to resume those shipments.
Last year, the British government released a dossier linking the African continent to Iraq's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. It accused Baghdad of trying to obtain what were termed "significant quantities of uranium from Africa" for its covert nuclear weapons program.
The British document did not identify any African countries. But in December, the U.S. State Department issued a fact sheet of its own, outlining critical omissions in Iraq's latest declaration to the United Nations on its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
That fact sheet singled out Niger as a country where Baghdad had tried to procure uranium.
The U.S. statement prompted authorities in Niger to acknowledge Iraq did try to purchase uranium in the 1980s. But they said the country's president at the time, Seyni Kountche, turned down Baghdad's request.
However, U.S. officials tell VOA that Iraq did obtain uranium from Niger two decades ago and that three years ago the two countries signed a secret agreement to resume the shipments.
The original sales are documented in a 1997 United Nations report submitted to the Security Council by Hans Blix, then director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and currently chief U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq.
That report, obtained by VOA, says Iraq received two large shipments from Niger of "yellowcake," a term describing a colorful, concentrated form of uranium ore used in nuclear programs, either for fuel or weapons. One shipment, received in February 1981, consisted of nearly 140 metric tons of "yellowcake." The second shipment, received in March of 1982, consisted of a nearly identical amount.
The U.N. report notes that Iraq notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of the first shipment but not the second.
Independently, U.S. officials tell VOA, Iraq and Niger signed an agreement in the summer of 2000 to resume shipments for an additional 500 tons of "yellowcake."
However these officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say they have never seen any evidence that the transaction was completed.
Niger is a poor, land-locked sub-Saharan country, but it is the world's third-largest uranium producer, after Canada and Australia. Its main uranium mining areas are operated by a French company called Cogema.
U.S. officials say they believe the French operator has good production controls and doubt any uranium materials have disappeared.
But one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it is possible that someone involved in the mining operation in Niger, possibly corrupt government officials, may have been trying to make some money "on the side" or outside normal business transactions.
The current director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, recently told the Security Council his agency has received additional information about Iraq's imports of uranium.
He says the IAEA is pursuing the matter and hopes for assistance from what he terms "the African country reported to have been involved." But he did not identify the country nor offer any other details.