I was surprised when President Bush stated in his most recent State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein had recently been seeking to purchase uranium in Africa. Nevertheless, the notion was not at all implausible. The president has since admitted he was relying on faulty intelligence, and now paradoxically is having his credibility challenged (should he have not admitted?); but one reason the erroneous report may have had staying power inside the intelligence community is that Africa had been a major, long-term source for Iraq’s uranium. And whether or not Saddam attempted such purchases in recent years, he successfully obtained large amounts before the first Gulf War.
Take Niger, for example, which has the fourth largest uranium reserves in the world. Prime Minister Hama Hamadou stated a few months ago that when Saddam sought to buy uranium in the 1980s, former president Seyni Kountche sent him packing. This is the same Seyni Kountche who in 1981 said that his country would sell uranium “even to the devil.” Niger had begun uranium production ten years earlier, and among its loyal customers were Libya and Iraq, so Kountche may not have been exaggerating. He was no angel himself. In 1991, the reformist National Conference in Niger established that Kountche used billions in profits from uranium sales as a private slush fund, distributed to cronies, the military, and the secret police.
When the uranium market collapsed in the early 1980s, Niger’s former colonial ruler France stepped in to mitigate the effects. France was an important uranium consumer, both to fuel its many nuclear plants, and to sell as an enriched product to other countries, such as Iraq. France had cooperated with Iraq in building the Osirak nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel in June 1981. Other countries also fed Saddam’s uranium habit — a 1993 IAEA report on the Iraqi nuclear program listed 580 tons of natural uranium inside Iraq originating from Brazil, Portugal, and, of course, Niger.
In addition, Iraq had a low-profile link to Somalian uranium. In 1984, Brazilian mining company Construtora Andrade Gutierrez announced a $300 million investment in a uranium mine in northern Somalia. The deal was to be financed by Banco do Brasil, and the host government agent was the Somali Arab Mining Company (Soarmico). Soarmico was itself a joint venture founded in 1978 between the Somali government, the Arab Mining Company based in Jordan, and Iraq. The project was beset by logistical and financial difficulties and it is unclear how much (if any) uranium ultimately made its way out of Somalia, especially before the country collapsed into anarchy. But you have to give Saddam credit for trying.
This is old information and not meant to try to substantiate the more recent claims, but it is important to discuss the issue with the benefit of some baseline facts. Saddam was a major buyer of African uranium in the years before the Gulf War; based on recent discoveries we know he retained a capability to reconstitute his nuclear program when the opportunity presented itself; and it would be reasonable to assume that he would seek replacement uranium for the hundreds of tons destroyed in earlier rounds of inspections. That is not intelligence so much as inference, but if one accepts the model, it is easy to see how someone might be overly eager to accept supporting evidence from a foreign intelligence service. Is this the stuff of congressional investigations? Must be a slow summer.