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Blair to blame France for Niger uranium row

TONY Blair is preparing a face-saving compromise with the United States in an attempt to heal the rift over whether Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger.

France is expected to be blamed for the split between the CIA and MI6 - on the grounds that Paris intelligence agencies shared hard evidence with Britain, but refused to show it to the US.

As Britain is forbidden from passing on this intelligence, it will be argued, the UK can be sure about the Niger connection - even though the CIA says there is not enough evidence to substantiate the claim.

Aides to both the Prime Minister and George Bush, the US president, are anxious to draw a line under the dispute before Thursday, when Mr Blair is due to address a joint session of the US Congress.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, confirmed that British officials had not compiled independent reports.

"This information on which we relied ... came from foreign intelligence sources," he told BBC Radio.

"We believe in the veracity of the intelligence ... it just happens to be one of the rules of liaison with foreign intelligence services that they own the intelligence."

A White House spokesman said Washington is not denying Britain’s claim about the Niger connection, merely saying that the CIA does not have enough evidence to corroborate it.

"The president said that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. That still may be absolute fact," said Ari Fleischer in his last day as White House spokesman, adding. "This revisionist notion that somehow this is now the core of why we went to war or a fundamental underpinning of the president’s decisions is a bunch of bull."

It has also emerged that the CIA was so anxious about the quality of intelligence from Niger that it allowed Mr Bush to refer to it in his State of the Union address in January only if he made clear the allegation was Britain’s, not the US’s.

George Tenet, the head of the CIA, has publicly apologised for allowing Niger to be mentioned even with this caveat - a sign that, even now, the US does not believe Britain’s assertion.

Mr Bush also defended his decision to mention the Niger connection - on the caveat that he was citing British intelligence.

"When I gave the speech the [Niger] line was relevant," he said.

He acknowledged that the CIA has since admitted that some documents about Niger had been forged.

Mr Bush yesterday defended the quality of intelligence he receives as "darn good" and said he remained convinced that Saddam was attempting to develop a weapons programme that threatened the world.

"Our country made the right decision," Mr Bush said.

"I think I get darn good intelligence and the speeches I have given are backed by good intelligence."

The United Nations nuclear watchdog was last night said to believe that Britain’s evidence on Iraq trying to import uranium from Africa is all based on the forged documents - not from French intelligence.

A diplomat in Vienna said in the UN’s many dealings with London during its weapon-hunt earlier this year, it saw nothing which has not now been proven to be untrue.

 
 
 

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