March 09, 2007

BOOMTOWN BRATS INVESTIGATE: AUG 03

Tthe rest of new zealand is paying for auckland’s new transport network through petrol taxes, but now aucklanders are getting uppity about paying their share of a rates increase. HAMISH CARNACHAN asks whether aucklanders are becoming BILLION DOLLAR BOOMTOWN BRATS...

It’s the fresh face of the new metropolis – shiny, colourful, and clean – a showpiece, of sorts, for where Auckland is heading, and also where it has been. Af-ter a long and difficult gestation, the Britomart is open for busi-ness after more than $200 mil-lion dollars, and the derailing of at least one mayoralty.

And this is just the start of grand plans that are afoot for Auckland. Plans, the authorities tell us, that are needed "to meet the changing face of the city", but plans that are likely to come at a cost to the entire country and are already causing widespread dissent.

The opening of Britomart is only the first completion in a concerted campaign of infrastructure development that will see massive amounts of money being spent in the nation’s largest city over the next 10 years. So what are these projects and where is the city heading? And as local body bureaucrats butt heads over where they want to take Auckland, is the much talked about ‘integrated transport network’ ever likely to leave the station?

To answer these questions we need to descend into the depths of Auckland’s new transport hub, to a place one enthusiastic commentator termed – "the genesis of the city’s future".

It certainly is a futuristic space. A stainless steel lattice sparkles floor to ceiling, reflecting a delicate array of pastel lighting flanking the tracks that snake their way into the underground enclosure. From the main platform you can see the light at the end of the tunnel linking the trains in the depot with the outside world and their ultimate destinations. But the end to Auckland’s transport woes, which Britomart was sold to the public as, is still a long way out of sight.

The trains have been revamped but these metallic pythons have merely shed their skin. They are almost 50 years old and outdated when it comes to meeting modern crash safety standards. The new depot looks impeccable, but at the end of the day it is just that, a depot – a glorified railway yard.

Presently, the place seems to be more congested with sightseers and the curious than true commuters. It’s little wonder either. Digital displays flash and blink, but only herald false promises - the trains still run exceptionally late. And beyond the clean confines of the space-aged station the rail network is a shambles of line faults and graffiti covered shacks.

But, as Auckland City mayor John Banks hastily points out, Britomart, the largest transport and heritage project ever undertaken by a local authority in the history of New Zealand, "is not the end – it is only the beginning."

Quite a turnaround from a man who was once an outspoken critic of the project, calling it that "temple at the bottom of Queen Street" and slating the council for signing it off days before he was elected. Now, he sees it working in with his campaign promise of decisive action on Auckland’s congested roads – something the Ferrari-driver says Aucklanders identify as their number one concern.

The greater Auckland area is New Zealand’s fastest growing region, with a population set to reach 1.65 million by 2021, an in-crease of almost half a million people. Auckland City’s own population is set to reach 530,000 by 2021. Another significant increase given that the latest Census figures put the number of people residing in Auckland at 388,000.

Banks says to compete with major regional hubs like Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, Auckland must focus on the pressures associated with such growth and that means developing a modern transport network.

"With enormous population pressures comes the need for substantial infrastructure development in the areas of roading, public transport, wastewater and sewage," says Banks in crusading manner. "This represents $9 billion over the next 10 years. For this city the biggest investment with the greatest urgency and best return is transport."

And by his own admission, transport is exactly what Banks has built his mayoralty around: "A simple vision of completing the region’s integrated transport network by 2010."

Lines drawn on paper in planning committees might look "simple", but ratepayer scrutiny and funding shortfalls may threaten the certainty of the schemes.

Almost $300 million will be spent on the notorious Spaghetti Junction and Grafton Gully motorway logjam and, despite vocal opposition from environmentalists and residents, plans for the promised Eastern Corridor motorway are "moving forward" according to Banks. State Highway 20 – the Western Corridor through Mount Roskill which forms a "critical part of the triple bypass" – is also moving ahead. And that is just a start.

"But it’s not just about building roads," says Banks. "It is about giving Auckland a modern, integrated transport network, which embraces the triple bypass with affordable public transport."

Indeed, Banks’ council is working with other agencies on an array of plans optimistically expected to be functional within 10 years. These include:

· New and refurbished trains by 2006

· Investigating a rapid transit corridor through the central city, from Britomart to Newmarket, for completion by 2006 - $700 million.

· Creating a North Shore bus way from the Harbour Bridge to Albany at a cost of $200 million.

· Upgrading ferry terminals and suburban railway stations and double tracking of the western line by 2008.

Most Aucklanders would argue that it is long overdue, but when it comes to footing the bill it seems few are prepared to fork out for the proposals, which come with a hefty price tag. It is estimated that $2.5 billion will be needed over the 10-year period.

Some ratepayer groups from within the wider Auckland region have made headlines after urging residents to drip-feed rates payments while they mount a legal challenge against the latest hike. The new Auckland Regional Council (ARC) rates have smacked some residents with rises of over 600 percent to recover the costs of the region’s transport upgrades.

Only time will tell if the rating furore means the ARC will be scrutinised more closely in terms of the value for money it provides on transport and other services, but Transit New Zealand’s latest agenda of national roading projects may throw another spanner in the works. The draft schedule released in January listed Auckland as having 18 of the 20 most urgently listed projects. In a recently revised list only three have survived, some suggest because of the angry reception from the rest of country over a perceived inequity.

Even Transit’s first schedule would have left a massive funding shortfall for Auckland so the region’s mayors are lobbying central government for a national 10c-per-litre petrol tax. Although the proposed tax would be distributed regionally (by population) this scheme has not gone down well with the rest of the country either.

But fair or not, Auckland’s traffic congestion is imparting a huge toll on both the regional and national economy – to the tune of around $1 billion a year is the general consensus. It is a cost the Government is clearly concerned about. Finance Minister Michael Cullen has said a range of funding options are being considered to get the city moving and the Government is investigating burrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to help solve the region’s transport woes.

Banks can understand that any national levy will not be popular, but according to him the cost to the economy is reason enough for the rest of the country to help fix the problem.

"Auckland is responsible for a third of the country’s economic wealth," he says. "As the nation’s engine-room Auckland needs to do better if this country is to achieve our potential on the world stage. At the heart of the problem is the fact that Auckland’s economic infrastructure has been left unattended to for far too long. "When we complete the region’s motorway network the wins will be significant."

And yet Banks admits that there is "not a hope" of completing the network proposals without adequate finance, so where does the vision of an integrated and modern system stand in light of funding troubles - derailed or still on track? "The region’s mayors are collectively committed to completing our transport network and the Government is committed to giving us the tools to finance the $2.4 billion funding shortfall.

"We are working with the Government on specifics and we are working on timeframes. It is my commitment to have all the money bolted down by the end of the third quarter of this year. We are quietly confident the Government will deliver what we need to fix Auckland’s problems."

Will local government deliver though? No amount of money will fix the local-body bickering that some critics, Banks included, say continues to stall the transport system upgrades and has plagued the Britomart project since its inception.

While the Auckland Regional Transport Network Limited [ARTNL] provides public transport infrastructure like stations and railway lines, the ARC provides the transport services. Local councils have no authority to do anything about the graffiti covered stations or the abysmal scheduling. Banks and Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey say the set-up is simply dysfunctional.

"The more the nightmare goes on with transport and rail the more people will realise it’s not working," says Harvey. "It’s not working because of the infrastructure around us [the region’s mayors]. We’re not getting the delivery because ARTNL and the ARC cannot agree to agree."

Banks says all the mayors want ARTNL to take control and run the rail network in and out of Britomart but key players in the ARC pursuing "their own agendas" refuse to relinquish control.

An international consulting company has delivered the region an ambitious draft, aiming to increase train patronage in Auckland from the present 2.24 million journeys a year to 25 million by 2015. Banks says the ARC has yet to approve the plan.

"We have confidence that they [ARTNL] can run it to a world-class standard, but I don’t have any confidence in the long-term transport in Auckland run by the ARC," says Banks. "I have no confidence that they can deliver and they need one hell of a shake-up – they’ve performed hopelessly."

Banks adds that, "fortunately", ARTNL has recently received $22 million of funding from Infrastructure Auckland. That money is to go towards improving signature stations throughout the greater Auckland area, yet it seems that much sorting out lies ahead if passenger rail is to transform the face of transport in and around the region.

That’s what has got residents so riled – as with Britomart there is a massive amount of spending but at the moment it all appears to be superficial. Furthermore, North Shore and Rodney District ratepayers say they are paying for a rail network that doesn’t even service their area. The ARC’s response is that the residents benefit from other public transport projects.

But Harvey was similarly unimpressed, albeit for slightly different reasons, after his first jaunt into the "super station". In the Herald he wrote of the experience: "I wanted more than what was delivered. I am bitterly unhappy that a great opportunity for a city as dazzling and stylish as Auckland has been lost…" In line with Waitakere’s "eco-city" mandate, he has been an outspoken advocate of light rail.

A spokesman from Harvey’s office says the decision to pursue heavy rail was a "major setback" for Waitakere because diesel-engine trains create excessive noise and particle pollution, in addition to other shortcomings.

"Light rail also offers a safer capacity to run trains on lighter rail through town centres – to shopping complexes and entertainment venues," says the spokesman.

Having lost the vote on light rail as an option for the region, Waitakere City Council is lobbying ARTNL for electrification and double tracking of the northwest line to improve the speed and reliability of the service.

Banks’ predecessor was also in favour of light rail but the mayor mocks that proposal as having "about as much support as Christine Fletcher had on election-day".

"Not only was it going to be very expensive but it was also slightly wacky," says Banks. "A $1.8 billion light rail network across the grid-locked streets of Auckland would have brought the city traffic to a standstill. We have committed to heavy rail, electrification and extending services."

They may not see eye to eye on the rail network, but Banks and Harvey have a shared consensus on the future of the Whenuapai Airbase when the Air Force moves to Ohakea sometime within the next five years. After the Government announced the closure of the military air facility, Harvey and his counterparts at North Shore (George Wood) and Rodney (John Law) collectively put the hand up to say they wanted the land to establish a second commercial airport. The Auckland City mayor sees merit in the proposal too.

"I am totally committed to maintaining the open space at Whenuapai for future public use, including an airport," says Banks. "I don’t want to see it carved up into state housing – I don’t want to see a fine open space like that transformed into an urban ghetto. Not that I’m against state housing, but we have so little open space left in this city we need to preserve what we’ve got."

The Whenuapai Airbase was Auckland’s main airport from 1954 to 1965, before the international airport opened in Mangere. While the runway at the site would not be able to handle anything much larger than a Boeing 737, Harvey and his associates say most of the infrastructure is already in place to cater for domestic and smaller transtasman and Pacific flights.

The standing joke in the city is that it can take longer to drive to Auckland Airport from the North Shore than it takes to fly to Wellington. Harvey is not laughing though, he’s deadly serious.

"Many Aucklanders have had the frustration of having to leave home for any flight from Mangere hours and hours before the actual departure time, simply because there is so much traffic congestion on the road slowing us all up."

He says a second airport at Whenuapai will offer travellers a faster alternative. Which makes sense if funding can be found for roading plans in the area - new motorway construction proposals, from the northwest of Harvey’s city to the North Shore, run right past the site.

But cutting down commuting time is not the only benefit supporters envisage for a second airport. Late last year Harvey informed a Waitakere City Development Committee of the significance of the airbase as a "strategic asset". He said its current military operations contribute approximately $60 million to the local and sub-regional economies of the northwest of the greater Auckland area.

Housing Minister Steve Maharey has said the Housing Corporation is negotiating to buy some of the land at the now defunct Hobsonville airbase – waterfront property that locals say is "prime real estate" - for state housing. It’s little wonder then that the mayors are so keen to get their hands on the land at Whenuapai rather than see it similarly carved up into lots by Housing New Zealand as is proposed for the site across the road.

Harvey says the region, as a whole, cannot afford to lose tens of millions of dollars generated by the airbase without it being replaced.

"While the eventual departure of the air force is a significant loss to the economy, it also represents a great opportunity to bring new life into the area," he says. "The development of a commercial airport at Whenuapai makes sense at so many levels, and Waitakere City looks forward to pursuing this option with both regional and central government support."

However, shortly after the mayors announced their plan, Michael Cullen said it was unlikely such dreams would get off the ground. Cullen even found an unlikely ally in National Party Helensville MP and Associate Spokesman for Transport and Commerce John Key.

Key published a statement on his website which says: "Living close to an airport sounds like a good idea – unless you are one of the unfortunate homeowners on the flight path, or the project ends up a financial lemon, in which case it could leave a sour taste in ratepayers’ mouths."

He goes on to suggest that "perhaps Whenuapai Airbase can – and will – be converted into Auckland’s second airport", but he warns ratepayers of the potential price.

According to Key’s figures, it will cost around $30 million to patch the "worn-out cement slab" runway at Whenuapai – Auckland Airport intends to spend $70 million on its second runway, which is due to be completed in 2006.

"Don’t forget to factor in the other requirements for a modern, commercial airport – efficient terminals, fuel storage, car parks and shops," adds Key.

Auckland Airport’s 2002 financial figures show its gross income for 2001 was $201 million. A little over a quarter of that was generated by 71,000 plane landings, with the balance made up of parking fees and terminal and commercial property leases.

Key believes that at one-fifth the size of Auckland Airport, Whenuapai is unlikely to be able to reap the same handsome rewards.

"These space constraints will dictate smaller airlines and charter flights, resulting in lower landing fees and fewer passengers for its shops. That spells out a greatly reduced income.

"Whenuapai, as a commercial airport, would create some jobs but not many unless it can challenge Auckland Airport head on and that is unlikely.

"Whenuapai is worth preserving but only as a military airfield, not some second-rate, loss-making commercial folly destined to bleed dry the local ratepayers."

Any commercial airport at Whenuapai would also need new resource consents for noise, aesthetic and emission pollution, and would likely face strong opposition from neighbouring residents. Although Auckland Airport is situated in an area classified as ‘industrial’, work on the northern runway faced significant delays while submissions were worked through.

Investigate offered Harvey a chance to discuss Key’s claims but the mayor said he was running late for a meeting and could only offer the following brief statement: "John Key believes that the airport is absolutely essential. He’s double dealing here. He is terrified of being fired by his electorate because some people are concerned about the proposal."

Harvey is confident his hopes haven’t been dashed yet. "It’s very much alive and well, the process has just been slowed somewhat." A spokesman for the mayor is able to confirm that budget airline Virgin Blue is interested in using Whenuapai as its centre of operations and Infratil, a commercial operator, has a written agreement with Waitakere City Council to run the airport if the Government does approve the venture.

Harvey’s office says the Beehive was expected to announce what will happen to the airbase at the end of July but, because of the debate generated, the decision has been stalled. The outcome is not anticipated until the end of August now.

Whether the region requires another airport or not is clearly a contentious issue, but the result of putting the brakes on Auckland’s infrastructure needs is more clear-cut. One only needs to look to Los Angeles as an example of where we might be headed. The Auckland skyline is crowded with cranes and the region is still experiencing a construction boom. More investment, more jobs, more progress all indicate greater demand is going to be placed on resources already under immense strain.

Auckland already has the second greatest urban sprawl (per capita) in the world, next to LA, and the population of the region continues to expand rapidly. In 20 years’ time the number of cars in Auckland is expected to double - commuting times only seem set to increase.

Residents can gripe about increased rates and in the end the majority will decide if the mayors’ vision for the city is 20/20. But perhaps Aucklanders have to come to terms with the fact that there is a cost associated with living in a large cosmopolitan city because, as Banks suggests, "Doing nothing is no longer an option."

If fixing Auckland’s economic infrastructure is really the key to unlocking the city’s potential and delivering benefits to the nation, New Zealanders can either embrace the new city and support its development or gamble that the purveyors of gloom have got it wrong.

The first strokes of the surgeon’s scalpel have touched the face of Auckland but anyone who has ever been caught in a clogged arterial jam understands it will take a lot more than a cosmetic makeover to get the city moving again.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:57 AM | Comments (1)

WILD GEESE: THE WMD HUNT INVESTIGATE: AUG 03

Did the Weapons of Mass Destruction ever exist, or was it just a ruse? JIM LANDERS, IAN WISHART & WILLIAM SHERMAN examine the evidence, the allegations and the fallout from Gulf War 2

In the months before the war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued a rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein that was compelling to a majority in Con-gress and with the American people. Iraq had defied the will of the United Nations for 12 years. Iraq had biological and chemical weapons. It was seeking nuclear weapons. Mr. Hussein was a supporter of terrorism, and – after Sept. 11, 2001 – the United States could not "wait for a mushroom cloud" to appear before acting to eliminate a threat to American security.

Some of those assumptions now are being challenged. Searchers have found no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At least some of the intelligence used to justify war has proved false.

The most compelling evidence to come forward regarding Iraq’s nuclear ambitions is from an Iraqi scientist who says the program was dormant but ready to re-emerge once U.N. sanctions against Iraq were lifted.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has again defended the administration’s rationale for war. He cites Bush’s Oct. 7 speech in Cincinnati, where the president said Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons and was seeking nuclear weapons.

"The case was very solid about the threat that was presented, particularly in light of Sept. 11," McClellan says.

Gregory Treverton, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, says Bush came up with "a quite stunning doctrine" by mixing two rationales: the need to disarm Iraq and to pre-empt the possibility that it might attack U.S. interests or allies.

"For all its technical wizardry, the U.S. intelligence community still lacks the ability to locate, target and take out some opponents’ weapons of mass destruction capability with any precision.

"Taking out a foe’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] means, as it did in Iraq, taking out the foe."

Vice President Dick Cheney led the Bush administration’s efforts to explain the doctrine of hitting your enemy before he hits you. In a speech last August in Nashville, he emphasized Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to argue that Iraq posed a threat to U.S. national security.

Cheney said using U.N. inspectors to block Iraq’s weapons programs "would provide no assurance whatsoever," and he argued instead for regime change to stop Hussein from giving such weapons to al-Qa’ida.

"Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or a murderous dictator or the two working together constitutes as grave a threat as can be imagined," said Cheney. "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."

Less than a week before the war, Cheney added: "We know he’s out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons, and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization."

WEAK INTELLIGENCE

The key to a decision to go to war was intelligence. So far, critics maintain, the record of intelligence used by both Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify war is not good.

Greg Thielmann, a retired State Department official who evaluated weapons intelligence for Secretary of State Colin Powell until last September, said "Iraq posed no imminent threat to either its neighbours or to the United States."

"Cheney’s argument was basically for pre-emptive war and regime change rather than for disarmament," Thielmann wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "If the U.N. would have been able to resolve the open WMD questions – and it was making progress – Cheney would have still favored pre-emption and regime change.

"But the American people wouldn’t accept that as justification for war, so he needed to scare them with a bogus nuclear weapons charge and anger them with a spurious al-Qaeda link. It worked."

Needless to say, Cheney’s spokeswoman dismisses Thielmann’s remarks as "nonsense."

"We’re confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," says Jennifer Millerwise, the vice president’s press secretary. "He even has a history of using them."

The intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program includes several strands of information. President Bush cited Hussein’s published exhortations to scientists he called his "nuclear mujaheddin" to get on with the mission.

NUCLEAR QUESTIONS

Before going back into Iraq this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency was concerned about satellite photos showing new construction at sites used in the past for nuclear weapons programs.

In 1998 and 1999, Iraq attempted to purchase from Germany 120 highly sophisticated electrical switches as spares for six lithotriptor machines used to treat kidney stones with ultrasonic waves.

Kelly Motz of Iraq Watch, a nonproliferation group, said the switches also could be used to trigger the precise detonations needed to initiate the explosion of a nuclear bomb.

The two incidents most often cited by the Bush administration and the British in arguing Iraq was still pursuing a bomb concerned Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa, and its purchase of sophisticated aluminium tubing to use in uranium enrichmnt centrifuges.

Powell stressed the acquisition of such tubes as evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions in his address to the U.N. Security Council last February.

Thielmann and the IAEA have said the tubes were most likely for Iraq’s artillery rockets and were not well-suited for uranium enrichment.

Powell noted the disagreement at the United Nations but would not let Iraq off the hook, saying the tubes could be adapted for centrifuge use and were banned by U.N. sanctions.

CIA Director George Tenet last month said the agency got fragmentary reports late in 2001 and early in 2002 that Mr. Hussein was trying to acquire raw uranium in Africa.

At the CIA’s request, former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson traveled to Niger to investigate. He found nothing to confirm the reports.

The British government, meanwhile, also received reports that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium in Africa. It has not divulged its source for this information.

Bush referred to the British finding in his State of the Union address. Last month, Bush conceded the reference to Niger should not have been in the speech, and Tenet has taken responsibility for not having the reference removed.

FORGED DOCUMENTS

Last March, the International Atomic Energy Agency said documents it received from the CIA detailing Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Niger were forgeries.

Britain is standing by its report. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has noted that the CIA had received other reports of Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium involving Somalia and the Congo.

Tenet said the CIA’s belief that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program rested on six assumptions that did not include the reports concerning efforts to acquire uranium in Africa.

The most compelling evidence that Iraq was still interested in acquiring nuclear weapons emerged last month, when Dr. Mahdi Shukur Ubaydi, a top Iraqi nuclear scientist, came forward with blueprints and components for uranium enrichment he had buried in his yard.

The CIA says Dr. Ubaydi had kept his information from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors when they questioned him. He said the items were part of "a secret, high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended."

Bush, Cheney, Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials argued before the war that Iraq had already reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

The Army and Marine Corps assumed in their battle plans that Iraq would use such weapons against U.S. troops. It was one of the reasons speed of attack had such a high premium in Gen. Tommy Franks’ war plan.

PLANS, NOT STOCKPILES

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, was in Baghdad last month with other panel members and met with David Kay, head of the U.S. military’s weapons search effort.

"They are confident that they will find the WMD programs, and I believe them," she says. "But they’re less confident that they will find stockpiles."

Harman says it now appears that Hussein kept intact cadres of scientists who had worked on weapons’ programs and limited production capabilities but perhaps no stocks of the weapons themselves.

That would undermine some of the assumptions of Western intelligence agencies.

Tony Blair, in the forward to a British white paper on Iraq’s weapons programs, declared Hussein’s military planning "allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

Bush argued his case for action on Oct. 7 in Cincinnati.

"Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today – and we do – does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?" - JIM LANDERS

There is a saying in the Arab world that Saddam Hussein was reportedly fond of quoting: "My en-emy’s enemy is my friend." During the first Gulf War back in 91, Saddam made it clear - firstly - that he had no friends, and secondly that given that particular twist of fate he had a wide range of enemies he could manipulate to suit his purposes on any given occasion.

Saddam’s shifting allegiances during his political career are legendary, and testimony to his willingness to use anyone or any organisation that he feels could assist his interests.

That background is worth bearing in mind as investigators try to sift through the wreckage of Iraq, looking for what appear to be non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

As the United States first prepared for conflict with Iraq a year ago, it gave three main reasons in support of a pre-emptive strike against Baghdad. Firstly, claimed President George W. Bush, Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, claimed Vice President Dick Cheney as recently as March 16, Iraq was "trying once again to produce nuclear weapons", and further that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons."

Thirdly, the US and Britain both warned that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a clear and present danger to world security because of its links to terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and its ability to provide weapons of mass destruction to such groups.

So how accurate were those claims?

IRAQ’S BIOCHEMICAL WEAPONS

Leaving aside the daily media fixation with the lack of evidence discovered post-war, the real question isn’t so much "Did WMD ever exist?", as it is "What happened to Iraq’s WMD?".

As previously reported, Iraq’s WMD programme goes back prior to Saddam Hussein’s takeover in 1979, with the purchase of billions of dollars in weapons systems and technology from France and Germany. Hussein also converted the country’s civilian nuclear programme to a military one, and hired former Nazi scientists who’d designed the poison gas systems for Auschwitz to work on chemical weapons for use against Israel.

Iraq manufactured and deployed nerve gas agents against invading Iranian troops in the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, and against Iraqi civilians in the Kurdistan province, killing thousands.

Despite continuing criticism of the lack of evidence, Iraq’s possession of biological or chemical weapons still appears highly likely if not certain. The reasoning for such a claim is simple:

The chemicals are simple to make, using ordinary agricultural products. Additionally, US forces and media discovered hundreds of brand new chemical warfare protection suits that had been issued to Iraqi troops - suits that would not have been necessary unless the possibility existed of chemical warfare.

While a strong argument can be made that no weapons have been found and therefore they cannot exist, at the time of going to print the US still hasn’t found Osama bin Laden after two years of searching, but that does not prove that he doesn’t exist.

IRAQ’S NUCLEAR AMBITIONS

The second claim centred on Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. Iraq had been working on atomic bombs right up to the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The real question was not whether Iraq had lost the urge to obtain "the bomb", but whether it had lost the ability.

Hans Blix, the Swede placed in charge of the UN Weapons Inspection process last year, had previously been in charge of the International Atomic Energy Agency throughout the period that Iraq had been using its IAEA-inspected facilities to secretly manufacture nuclear weapons. In other words, say critics, Blix was a hopeless inspector first time around and unlikely to have improved this time.

But Anglo-American claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities this year appear to have been based on forged documentation suggesting Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the African country, Niger.

While anti-war protestors immediately tried to pin the forgeries on the Bush administration, it now appears Britain and the US were the victims of a French practical joke.

Niger, a former French colony, runs its uranium mining operations in association with a French Government agency. According to UK press reports, the original tip-off about Niger and Iraq came to Britain’s MI6 directly from the French secret service, the DGSE.

Was it a deliberate attempt by the French to mislead the British about Iraq? As previously reported in Investigate, Iraq’s initial nuclear weapons programme was based entirely on French military and nuclear technology and assistance.

Reeling from the backlash over the Niger claims, the White House has released portions of a classified document in attempt to show why speechwriters included a now-disputed line in President Bush's State of the Union address relating to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The line reads: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

In the latest round of intelligence agency backside-covering that’s followed this controversy, the CIA has admitted it didn’t want the reference to Niger included in presidential briefings because it wasn’t convinced of the veracity of the reports. The agency has however maintained that evidence does exist about Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium elsewhere in Africa.

To that end, the US has released portions of the previously classified document summarizing six intelligence agencies' views and findings, called the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate [NIE], concluded there was "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program."

Questions remain unanswered however about how much the White House knew and when. US national security adviser Condaleeza Rice denies concerns were raised about the uranium reference.

"If there was a concern about the underlying intelligence there, the president was unaware of that concern and as was I," she said in a July 11 press briefing.

But, as WorldNetDaily.com reports, documents emerged last week that cast doubt on her explanation.

"According to a memo sent to Rice on Oct. 6, the CIA warned her the uranium charge suffered from a "weakness in evidence." CIA Director George Tenet also tried to wave Rice's deputy Steve Hadley off the charge in several phone calls. On Oct. 7, Bush dropped the allegation from a speech he delivered on Iraq in Cincinnati. Three months later, it reappeared in his State of the Union speech.

"Rice has yet to explain the inconsistency presented by the memo," reports WorldNetDaily.

"She also has maintained that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, on Iraq – a 90-page Top Secret report prepared by the U.S. intelligence community, and sent to the White House on Oct. 2 – did not raise doubts about the uranium evidence.

"If there were doubts about the underlying intelligence to that NIE, those doubts were not communicated to the president, the vice president or to me," Rice said on July 11.

"And in a June 8 ABC News interview, she said, "The intelligence community did not know at that time or at levels that got to us that there were serious questions about this report."

"But her remarks are at odds with the facts. The six intelligence agencies that prepared the NIE, which was sent to Rice's office, had so little faith in the veracity of the uranium reports that they voted unanimously to leave it out of the NIE's conclusions, or "key judgments," which were recently declassified. WorldNetDaily obtained a copy of them from the NSC.

"In fact, they are conspicuously absent from the list of evidence supporting the key judgment that "Saddam [Hussein] is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program."

The NIE report in fact says:

"Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors – as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools – provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is under way, but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)"

In other words, although Iraq had clear intent to develop nuclear weapons, it probably had not done so by the time war was declared.

It should be noted however that with nuclear material readily available - as both Iran and North Korea have illustrated - it may well only have been a matter of time before Baghdad re-entered the atomic arms race.

IRAQ’S LINKS TO AL QA’IDA

Another purported justification for war was on the alleged links between Iraq and al Qa’ida.

When the World Trade Centre was blown up in 2001, the Bush administration initially rubbished suggestions of a link to Iraq.

For a start, most of those responsible were Saudi Arabian, and there was little evidence linking Saddam Hussein with Islamic extremists like al Qa’ida.

Some, however, are not so sure. Gilbert Merritt, a US federal judge working to help establish a new justice system in Iraq, claims to have been given documents indicating a direct relationship between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden. Nor is Merritt a Bush-nominated "hawk" - he is in fact a "Democrat and a man of unimpeachable integrity", according to US media reports. Merritt told of one document he was given in June:

"The document shows that an Iraqi intelligence officer, Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, assigned to the Iraq embassy in Pakistan, is "responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group.’’

"The document shows that it was written over the signature of Uday Saddam Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein. The story of how the document came about is as follows.

"Saddam gave Uday authority to control all press and media outlets in Iraq. Uday was the publisher of the Babylon Daily Political Newspaper.

"On the front page of the paper’s four-page edition for Nov. 14, 2002, there was a picture of Osama bin Laden speaking, next to which was a picture of Saddam and his ‘’Revolutionary Council,’’ together with stories about Israeli tanks attacking a group of Palestinians.

"On the back page was a story headlined ‘’List of Honor.’’ In a box below the headline was ‘’A list of men we publish for the public.’’ The lead sentence refers to a list of ‘’regime persons’’ with their names and positions.

"The list has 600 names and titles in three columns. It contains, for example, the names of the important officials who are members of Saddam’s family, such as Uday, and then other high officials, including the 55 American ‘’deck of cards’’ Iraqi officials, some of whom have been apprehended.

"Halfway down the middle column is written: "Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, intelligence officer responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group at the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan.’’

Circumstantial evidence, yes. Smoking Gun? Not quite, but it should be a warning to doubters that the burden of proof for both sides is significant.

Some investigations have previously tied Iraqi intelligence agents to the 1993 attempt by Ramsi Yousef to blow up the World Trade Centre (also in collusion with al Qa’ida) and the 1995 plot to hijack 11 aircraft over the Pacific - that plot coming to light after Yousef’s arrest in the Philippines.

But where the anti-war movement may yet gain the strongest traction is over the status of Iraq’s oilfields. US journalist Paul Sperry, in a new book called Crude Politics: How Bush’s Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism, argues that although not the overarching motivation, the oil lobby has manipulated events to take maximum advantage of the situation.

Sperry cites a report to a White House energy task force back in April 2001, which ‘recommended considering a "military" option in dealing with Iraq, which the report charged was using oil exports as a "weapon" by turning its spigot on and off to "manipulate oil markets".’

As if such price fluctuations and speculations are not already inherently part of the global oil market, fuelled in a large part by Western financial markets trading in oil futures.

"The report advised the Bush administration," says Sperry in a WorldNetDaily report last month, "to - at a minimum - bring UN weapons inspectors back to Iraq and then, ‘once an arms control program is in place, the United States could consider reducing restrictions on oil investment inside Iraq’ to gain greater control over the reserves and ‘inject’ more stability into world oil markets."

JudicialWatch, an organisation dedicated to acting as a public watchdog on major issues in the US, has also recently obtained pertinent documents in the case, including a map of the Iraqi oil fields presented to the Energy task force. - IAN WISHART

In the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s billions, investigators have identi-fied five networks of more than 100 companies used to launder money skimmed from Iraqi oil sales. Saddam’s gangster regime set up shell companies in Switzerland, Jordan, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Panama, according to investigators.

Those company networks and their banking affiliations were used to enrich the former Iraqi strongman, his sons Uday and Qusay, and other family members.

"Ultimately, the money was stolen from the Iraqi people," says Taylor Griffin, spokesman for the Treasury Department, which is heading the government’s laundering probe along with U.S. Customs, the Secret Service and various intelligence agencies.

Last month, investigators isolated US$1.2 billion in previously unknown assets outside Iraq. The assets include cash, real estate and diamonds held in the names of the companies controlled by Saddam.

With names like Jaraco SA and Dynatrade SA, the companies used major banks in Switzerland, France, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to conduct transactions, according to investigators.

The intricate web was managed at the top by about 20 of Saddam’s relatives and friends, who spent most of their time outside Iraq.

The mastermind of this vast criminal enterprise was believed to be Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti. Now in American custody, he could provide a road map to Saddam’s hidden wealth.

Hasan, the Five of Clubs in the U.S. deck of most-wanted Iraqis, was Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva for 10 years, ending in 1998.

During that time, he helped set up and manage a money-laundering network that was among the most sophisticated in the world, say investigators.

A second manager was Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, according to a Treasury Department source. Aziz, also in U.S. custody, traveled widely under diplomatic immunity.

Estimates of the hidden loot range as high as US$40 billion, but Saddam’s personal trove "is in the single-digit billions, not more than 10," according to investigator John Fawcett.

"I’m kind of conservative in calculating his wealth," says Fawcett, who has focused on Saddam’s finances for more than three years, most recently on behalf of Kreindler & Kreindler, a Park Avenue law firm.

The firm is trying pinpoint the links between Saddam’s assets and financing of al-Qaida. Once identified, those assets could be seized, recovered in court proceedings and distributed to families of those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We think Saddam’s laundered money was used in part to provide financial support to al-Qaida, and we’re looking at billions of dollars hidden in financial institutions and companies," says lawyer James Kreindler.

One clue as to the size of Saddam’s laundered legacy was found last month - US$780 million in makeshift vaults in a palace compound and another cache of $112 million found in dog kennels on the grounds.

The cash was in $100 bills, and in the dog kennels there were 200 aluminum boxes with $4 million in each box, all sealed with tags reading Bank of Jordan.

Customs and Secret Service agents in Baghdad are tracing the serial numbers to learn the origin of the bulk cash shipments, said Customs spokesman Dean Boyd.

The serial numbers on the bills will reveal which U.S. bank first received the cash from the Federal Reserve. From there, it may be possible to trace how the money got to Saddam’s palace.

"We’ve also uncovered a lot of documents on Saddam’s financial apparatus," Boyd says. For more than 20 years, Saddam skimmed 5 percent of just about everything that moved in and out of Iraq.

"Kickbacks were everywhere," claims Fawcett.

Sulfur and fertilizer exports and imports of tobacco and alcoholic beverages were among the items subject to the rakeoff, according to the British Foreign Office and the Coalition for International Justice.

The rakeoff in 2000 alone included monthly imports of 300 million cigarettes, 38,000 bottles of whiskey, 230,000 cans of beer, 120,000 bottles of vodka and almost 19,000 bottles of wine, according to Peter Hain, a British foreign office official.

Saddam also fleeced pilgrims to Iraqi Shiite shrines in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, making them travel in buses owned by the Al-Hoda company, controlled by Uday Hussein, and stay in designated hotels.

A nine-day pilgrimage costs at least $900, much of which went to Saddam’s family, according to the coalition.

But the principal source of the regime’s skimmed revenue was oil exports, including more than US$6.6 billion from the United Nations-sponsored oil-for-food program, General Accounting Office investigators found.

That program involved a direct exchange of exported Iraqi oil for food and medicine. It was part of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to prevent the diversion of oil proceeds to weapons.

In the last five years, the regime managed to duck the U.N. sanctions with a large-scale smuggling operation involving shipments through Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Persian Gulf countries.

During March 2002, Iraq smuggled out between 325,000 and 480,000 barrels a day, according to the General Accounting Office.

Barges, tankers, pipelines and trucks were used to get the oil out past U.N. inspectors’ scrutiny, and at one point, an estimated 45,000 Turkish truckers were on the roads, loaded up with oil, the agency said.

Until the sanctions were imposed, Iraqi oil exports were not monitored, and all were subject to the 5 percent kickback. In the early years of Saddam’s 25-year reign, Iraq exported as much as 3.2 million barrels per day.

The kickback-laundering system is essentially quite simple. Oil buyers, whether companies or countries, bought Iraqi oil from Saddam-controlled trading companies located outside the country.

The trading companies would forward 95 percent of the money to the Iraqi oil ministry and send Saddam’s 5 percent to shell companies outside Iraq, investigators said.

Directors of those shell companies would deposit the 5 percent in company bank accounts, and the money was effectively laundered. Swiss and French lawyers did the paperwork.

Gold, artworks, hotels, construction and metal fabrication concerns, money market accounts, commodity trading companies and publishing are among Saddam’s laundered investments.

Kroll Associates, a private investigative company, and the International Campaign to Indict Iraqi War Criminals, a U.S.-funded organization based in England, have identified other key figures in the financial network.

Hussam Rassam, a 67-year-old Iraqi businessman who established residency in Switzerland in 1987, was the administrator of the Saddam family pension fund, valued at $41.6 billion in 1990, according to a Kroll report.

Hussam "was appointed (administrator) in 1989 after the execution of his predecessor for skimming funds," said the report.

A telephone call to Hussam’s home in the Swiss Canton of Vaud was answered by a French-speaking woman who told a reporter, "Mr. Hussam isn’t here."

Whether Saddam and his sons are alive remains an open question, but it’s unlikely they could ever again enjoy their over-the-top opulent lifestyles.

Previously frozen Iraqi assets include $20 million in the Cayman Islands, $85 million in the Bahamas and $14 million in Japan.

"What’s the total, and where is it all?" asks Griffin. "I wish I knew." - WILLIAM SHERMAN


Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:54 AM | Comments (0)

WILD GEESE: THE WMD HUNT INVESTIGATE: AUG 03

Did the Weapons of Mass Destruction ever exist, or was it just a ruse? JIM LANDERS, IAN WISHART & WILLIAM SHERMAN examine the evidence, the allegations and the fallout from Gulf War 2

In the months before the war with Iraq, the Bush administration argued a rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein that was compelling to a majority in Con-gress and with the American people. Iraq had defied the will of the United Nations for 12 years. Iraq had biological and chemical weapons. It was seeking nuclear weapons. Mr. Hussein was a supporter of terrorism, and – after Sept. 11, 2001 – the United States could not "wait for a mushroom cloud" to appear before acting to eliminate a threat to American security.

Some of those assumptions now are being challenged. Searchers have found no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At least some of the intelligence used to justify war has proved false.

The most compelling evidence to come forward regarding Iraq’s nuclear ambitions is from an Iraqi scientist who says the program was dormant but ready to re-emerge once U.N. sanctions against Iraq were lifted.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has again defended the administration’s rationale for war. He cites Bush’s Oct. 7 speech in Cincinnati, where the president said Iraq possessed biological and chemical weapons and was seeking nuclear weapons.

"The case was very solid about the threat that was presented, particularly in light of Sept. 11," McClellan says.

Gregory Treverton, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, says Bush came up with "a quite stunning doctrine" by mixing two rationales: the need to disarm Iraq and to pre-empt the possibility that it might attack U.S. interests or allies.

"For all its technical wizardry, the U.S. intelligence community still lacks the ability to locate, target and take out some opponents’ weapons of mass destruction capability with any precision.

"Taking out a foe’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] means, as it did in Iraq, taking out the foe."

Vice President Dick Cheney led the Bush administration’s efforts to explain the doctrine of hitting your enemy before he hits you. In a speech last August in Nashville, he emphasized Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to argue that Iraq posed a threat to U.S. national security.

Cheney said using U.N. inspectors to block Iraq’s weapons programs "would provide no assurance whatsoever," and he argued instead for regime change to stop Hussein from giving such weapons to al-Qa’ida.

"Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terror network or a murderous dictator or the two working together constitutes as grave a threat as can be imagined," said Cheney. "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action."

Less than a week before the war, Cheney added: "We know he’s out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons, and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization."

WEAK INTELLIGENCE

The key to a decision to go to war was intelligence. So far, critics maintain, the record of intelligence used by both Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify war is not good.

Greg Thielmann, a retired State Department official who evaluated weapons intelligence for Secretary of State Colin Powell until last September, said "Iraq posed no imminent threat to either its neighbours or to the United States."

"Cheney’s argument was basically for pre-emptive war and regime change rather than for disarmament," Thielmann wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "If the U.N. would have been able to resolve the open WMD questions – and it was making progress – Cheney would have still favored pre-emption and regime change.

"But the American people wouldn’t accept that as justification for war, so he needed to scare them with a bogus nuclear weapons charge and anger them with a spurious al-Qaeda link. It worked."

Needless to say, Cheney’s spokeswoman dismisses Thielmann’s remarks as "nonsense."

"We’re confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," says Jennifer Millerwise, the vice president’s press secretary. "He even has a history of using them."

The intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program includes several strands of information. President Bush cited Hussein’s published exhortations to scientists he called his "nuclear mujaheddin" to get on with the mission.

NUCLEAR QUESTIONS

Before going back into Iraq this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency was concerned about satellite photos showing new construction at sites used in the past for nuclear weapons programs.

In 1998 and 1999, Iraq attempted to purchase from Germany 120 highly sophisticated electrical switches as spares for six lithotriptor machines used to treat kidney stones with ultrasonic waves.

Kelly Motz of Iraq Watch, a nonproliferation group, said the switches also could be used to trigger the precise detonations needed to initiate the explosion of a nuclear bomb.

The two incidents most often cited by the Bush administration and the British in arguing Iraq was still pursuing a bomb concerned Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Africa, and its purchase of sophisticated aluminium tubing to use in uranium enrichmnt centrifuges.

Powell stressed the acquisition of such tubes as evidence of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions in his address to the U.N. Security Council last February.

Thielmann and the IAEA have said the tubes were most likely for Iraq’s artillery rockets and were not well-suited for uranium enrichment.

Powell noted the disagreement at the United Nations but would not let Iraq off the hook, saying the tubes could be adapted for centrifuge use and were banned by U.N. sanctions.

CIA Director George Tenet last month said the agency got fragmentary reports late in 2001 and early in 2002 that Mr. Hussein was trying to acquire raw uranium in Africa.

At the CIA’s request, former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson traveled to Niger to investigate. He found nothing to confirm the reports.

The British government, meanwhile, also received reports that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium in Africa. It has not divulged its source for this information.

Bush referred to the British finding in his State of the Union address. Last month, Bush conceded the reference to Niger should not have been in the speech, and Tenet has taken responsibility for not having the reference removed.

FORGED DOCUMENTS

Last March, the International Atomic Energy Agency said documents it received from the CIA detailing Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium in Niger were forgeries.

Britain is standing by its report. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has noted that the CIA had received other reports of Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium involving Somalia and the Congo.

Tenet said the CIA’s belief that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program rested on six assumptions that did not include the reports concerning efforts to acquire uranium in Africa.

The most compelling evidence that Iraq was still interested in acquiring nuclear weapons emerged last month, when Dr. Mahdi Shukur Ubaydi, a top Iraqi nuclear scientist, came forward with blueprints and components for uranium enrichment he had buried in his yard.

The CIA says Dr. Ubaydi had kept his information from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors when they questioned him. He said the items were part of "a secret, high-level plan to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program once sanctions ended."

Bush, Cheney, Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials argued before the war that Iraq had already reconstituted its nuclear weapons program and had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

The Army and Marine Corps assumed in their battle plans that Iraq would use such weapons against U.S. troops. It was one of the reasons speed of attack had such a high premium in Gen. Tommy Franks’ war plan.

PLANS, NOT STOCKPILES

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, was in Baghdad last month with other panel members and met with David Kay, head of the U.S. military’s weapons search effort.

"They are confident that they will find the WMD programs, and I believe them," she says. "But they’re less confident that they will find stockpiles."

Harman says it now appears that Hussein kept intact cadres of scientists who had worked on weapons’ programs and limited production capabilities but perhaps no stocks of the weapons themselves.

That would undermine some of the assumptions of Western intelligence agencies.

Tony Blair, in the forward to a British white paper on Iraq’s weapons programs, declared Hussein’s military planning "allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them."

Bush argued his case for action on Oct. 7 in Cincinnati.

"Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time. If we know Saddam Hussein has dangerous weapons today – and we do – does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?" - JIM LANDERS

There is a saying in the Arab world that Saddam Hussein was reportedly fond of quoting: "My en-emy’s enemy is my friend." During the first Gulf War back in 91, Saddam made it clear - firstly - that he had no friends, and secondly that given that particular twist of fate he had a wide range of enemies he could manipulate to suit his purposes on any given occasion.

Saddam’s shifting allegiances during his political career are legendary, and testimony to his willingness to use anyone or any organisation that he feels could assist his interests.

That background is worth bearing in mind as investigators try to sift through the wreckage of Iraq, looking for what appear to be non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

As the United States first prepared for conflict with Iraq a year ago, it gave three main reasons in support of a pre-emptive strike against Baghdad. Firstly, claimed President George W. Bush, Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, claimed Vice President Dick Cheney as recently as March 16, Iraq was "trying once again to produce nuclear weapons", and further that Iraq had "reconstituted nuclear weapons."

Thirdly, the US and Britain both warned that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a clear and present danger to world security because of its links to terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and its ability to provide weapons of mass destruction to such groups.

So how accurate were those claims?

IRAQ’S BIOCHEMICAL WEAPONS

Leaving aside the daily media fixation with the lack of evidence discovered post-war, the real question isn’t so much "Did WMD ever exist?", as it is "What happened to Iraq’s WMD?".

As previously reported, Iraq’s WMD programme goes back prior to Saddam Hussein’s takeover in 1979, with the purchase of billions of dollars in weapons systems and technology from France and Germany. Hussein also converted the country’s civilian nuclear programme to a military one, and hired former Nazi scientists who’d designed the poison gas systems for Auschwitz to work on chemical weapons for use against Israel.

Iraq manufactured and deployed nerve gas agents against invading Iranian troops in the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, and against Iraqi civilians in the Kurdistan province, killing thousands.

Despite continuing criticism of the lack of evidence, Iraq’s possession of biological or chemical weapons still appears highly likely if not certain. The reasoning for such a claim is simple:

The chemicals are simple to make, using ordinary agricultural products. Additionally, US forces and media discovered hundreds of brand new chemical warfare protection suits that had been issued to Iraqi troops - suits that would not have been necessary unless the possibility existed of chemical warfare.

While a strong argument can be made that no weapons have been found and therefore they cannot exist, at the time of going to print the US still hasn’t found Osama bin Laden after two years of searching, but that does not prove that he doesn’t exist.

IRAQ’S NUCLEAR AMBITIONS

The second claim centred on Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. Iraq had been working on atomic bombs right up to the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The real question was not whether Iraq had lost the urge to obtain "the bomb", but whether it had lost the ability.

Hans Blix, the Swede placed in charge of the UN Weapons Inspection process last year, had previously been in charge of the International Atomic Energy Agency throughout the period that Iraq had been using its IAEA-inspected facilities to secretly manufacture nuclear weapons. In other words, say critics, Blix was a hopeless inspector first time around and unlikely to have improved this time.

But Anglo-American claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities this year appear to have been based on forged documentation suggesting Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the African country, Niger.

While anti-war protestors immediately tried to pin the forgeries on the Bush administration, it now appears Britain and the US were the victims of a French practical joke.

Niger, a former French colony, runs its uranium mining operations in association with a French Government agency. According to UK press reports, the original tip-off about Niger and Iraq came to Britain’s MI6 directly from the French secret service, the DGSE.

Was it a deliberate attempt by the French to mislead the British about Iraq? As previously reported in Investigate, Iraq’s initial nuclear weapons programme was based entirely on French military and nuclear technology and assistance.

Reeling from the backlash over the Niger claims, the White House has released portions of a classified document in attempt to show why speechwriters included a now-disputed line in President Bush's State of the Union address relating to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The line reads: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

In the latest round of intelligence agency backside-covering that’s followed this controversy, the CIA has admitted it didn’t want the reference to Niger included in presidential briefings because it wasn’t convinced of the veracity of the reports. The agency has however maintained that evidence does exist about Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium elsewhere in Africa.

To that end, the US has released portions of the previously classified document summarizing six intelligence agencies' views and findings, called the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate [NIE], concluded there was "compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program."

Questions remain unanswered however about how much the White House knew and when. US national security adviser Condaleeza Rice denies concerns were raised about the uranium reference.

"If there was a concern about the underlying intelligence there, the president was unaware of that concern and as was I," she said in a July 11 press briefing.

But, as WorldNetDaily.com reports, documents emerged last week that cast doubt on her explanation.

"According to a memo sent to Rice on Oct. 6, the CIA warned her the uranium charge suffered from a "weakness in evidence." CIA Director George Tenet also tried to wave Rice's deputy Steve Hadley off the charge in several phone calls. On Oct. 7, Bush dropped the allegation from a speech he delivered on Iraq in Cincinnati. Three months later, it reappeared in his State of the Union speech.

"Rice has yet to explain the inconsistency presented by the memo," reports WorldNetDaily.

"She also has maintained that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, on Iraq – a 90-page Top Secret report prepared by the U.S. intelligence community, and sent to the White House on Oct. 2 – did not raise doubts about the uranium evidence.

"If there were doubts about the underlying intelligence to that NIE, those doubts were not communicated to the president, the vice president or to me," Rice said on July 11.

"And in a June 8 ABC News interview, she said, "The intelligence community did not know at that time or at levels that got to us that there were serious questions about this report."

"But her remarks are at odds with the facts. The six intelligence agencies that prepared the NIE, which was sent to Rice's office, had so little faith in the veracity of the uranium reports that they voted unanimously to leave it out of the NIE's conclusions, or "key judgments," which were recently declassified. WorldNetDaily obtained a copy of them from the NSC.

"In fact, they are conspicuously absent from the list of evidence supporting the key judgment that "Saddam [Hussein] is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program."

The NIE report in fact says:

"Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors – as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools – provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is under way, but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)"

In other words, although Iraq had clear intent to develop nuclear weapons, it probably had not done so by the time war was declared.

It should be noted however that with nuclear material readily available - as both Iran and North Korea have illustrated - it may well only have been a matter of time before Baghdad re-entered the atomic arms race.

IRAQ’S LINKS TO AL QA’IDA

Another purported justification for war was on the alleged links between Iraq and al Qa’ida.

When the World Trade Centre was blown up in 2001, the Bush administration initially rubbished suggestions of a link to Iraq.

For a start, most of those responsible were Saudi Arabian, and there was little evidence linking Saddam Hussein with Islamic extremists like al Qa’ida.

Some, however, are not so sure. Gilbert Merritt, a US federal judge working to help establish a new justice system in Iraq, claims to have been given documents indicating a direct relationship between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden. Nor is Merritt a Bush-nominated "hawk" - he is in fact a "Democrat and a man of unimpeachable integrity", according to US media reports. Merritt told of one document he was given in June:

"The document shows that an Iraqi intelligence officer, Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, assigned to the Iraq embassy in Pakistan, is "responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group.’’

"The document shows that it was written over the signature of Uday Saddam Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein. The story of how the document came about is as follows.

"Saddam gave Uday authority to control all press and media outlets in Iraq. Uday was the publisher of the Babylon Daily Political Newspaper.

"On the front page of the paper’s four-page edition for Nov. 14, 2002, there was a picture of Osama bin Laden speaking, next to which was a picture of Saddam and his ‘’Revolutionary Council,’’ together with stories about Israeli tanks attacking a group of Palestinians.

"On the back page was a story headlined ‘’List of Honor.’’ In a box below the headline was ‘’A list of men we publish for the public.’’ The lead sentence refers to a list of ‘’regime persons’’ with their names and positions.

"The list has 600 names and titles in three columns. It contains, for example, the names of the important officials who are members of Saddam’s family, such as Uday, and then other high officials, including the 55 American ‘’deck of cards’’ Iraqi officials, some of whom have been apprehended.

"Halfway down the middle column is written: "Abid Al-Karim Muhamed Aswod, intelligence officer responsible for the coordination of activities with the Osama bin Laden group at the Iraqi embassy in Pakistan.’’

Circumstantial evidence, yes. Smoking Gun? Not quite, but it should be a warning to doubters that the burden of proof for both sides is significant.

Some investigations have previously tied Iraqi intelligence agents to the 1993 attempt by Ramsi Yousef to blow up the World Trade Centre (also in collusion with al Qa’ida) and the 1995 plot to hijack 11 aircraft over the Pacific - that plot coming to light after Yousef’s arrest in the Philippines.

But where the anti-war movement may yet gain the strongest traction is over the status of Iraq’s oilfields. US journalist Paul Sperry, in a new book called Crude Politics: How Bush’s Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism, argues that although not the overarching motivation, the oil lobby has manipulated events to take maximum advantage of the situation.

Sperry cites a report to a White House energy task force back in April 2001, which ‘recommended considering a "military" option in dealing with Iraq, which the report charged was using oil exports as a "weapon" by turning its spigot on and off to "manipulate oil markets".’

As if such price fluctuations and speculations are not already inherently part of the global oil market, fuelled in a large part by Western financial markets trading in oil futures.

"The report advised the Bush administration," says Sperry in a WorldNetDaily report last month, "to - at a minimum - bring UN weapons inspectors back to Iraq and then, ‘once an arms control program is in place, the United States could consider reducing restrictions on oil investment inside Iraq’ to gain greater control over the reserves and ‘inject’ more stability into world oil markets."

JudicialWatch, an organisation dedicated to acting as a public watchdog on major issues in the US, has also recently obtained pertinent documents in the case, including a map of the Iraqi oil fields presented to the Energy task force. - IAN WISHART

In the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s billions, investigators have identi-fied five networks of more than 100 companies used to launder money skimmed from Iraqi oil sales. Saddam’s gangster regime set up shell companies in Switzerland, Jordan, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg and Panama, according to investigators.

Those company networks and their banking affiliations were used to enrich the former Iraqi strongman, his sons Uday and Qusay, and other family members.

"Ultimately, the money was stolen from the Iraqi people," says Taylor Griffin, spokesman for the Treasury Department, which is heading the government’s laundering probe along with U.S. Customs, the Secret Service and various intelligence agencies.

Last month, investigators isolated US$1.2 billion in previously unknown assets outside Iraq. The assets include cash, real estate and diamonds held in the names of the companies controlled by Saddam.

With names like Jaraco SA and Dynatrade SA, the companies used major banks in Switzerland, France, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to conduct transactions, according to investigators.

The intricate web was managed at the top by about 20 of Saddam’s relatives and friends, who spent most of their time outside Iraq.

The mastermind of this vast criminal enterprise was believed to be Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti. Now in American custody, he could provide a road map to Saddam’s hidden wealth.

Hasan, the Five of Clubs in the U.S. deck of most-wanted Iraqis, was Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva for 10 years, ending in 1998.

During that time, he helped set up and manage a money-laundering network that was among the most sophisticated in the world, say investigators.

A second manager was Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, according to a Treasury Department source. Aziz, also in U.S. custody, traveled widely under diplomatic immunity.

Estimates of the hidden loot range as high as US$40 billion, but Saddam’s personal trove "is in the single-digit billions, not more than 10," according to investigator John Fawcett.

"I’m kind of conservative in calculating his wealth," says Fawcett, who has focused on Saddam’s finances for more than three years, most recently on behalf of Kreindler & Kreindler, a Park Avenue law firm.

The firm is trying pinpoint the links between Saddam’s assets and financing of al-Qaida. Once identified, those assets could be seized, recovered in court proceedings and distributed to families of those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We think Saddam’s laundered money was used in part to provide financial support to al-Qaida, and we’re looking at billions of dollars hidden in financial institutions and companies," says lawyer James Kreindler.

One clue as to the size of Saddam’s laundered legacy was found last month - US$780 million in makeshift vaults in a palace compound and another cache of $112 million found in dog kennels on the grounds.

The cash was in $100 bills, and in the dog kennels there were 200 aluminum boxes with $4 million in each box, all sealed with tags reading Bank of Jordan.

Customs and Secret Service agents in Baghdad are tracing the serial numbers to learn the origin of the bulk cash shipments, said Customs spokesman Dean Boyd.

The serial numbers on the bills will reveal which U.S. bank first received the cash from the Federal Reserve. From there, it may be possible to trace how the money got to Saddam’s palace.

"We’ve also uncovered a lot of documents on Saddam’s financial apparatus," Boyd says. For more than 20 years, Saddam skimmed 5 percent of just about everything that moved in and out of Iraq.

"Kickbacks were everywhere," claims Fawcett.

Sulfur and fertilizer exports and imports of tobacco and alcoholic beverages were among the items subject to the rakeoff, according to the British Foreign Office and the Coalition for International Justice.

The rakeoff in 2000 alone included monthly imports of 300 million cigarettes, 38,000 bottles of whiskey, 230,000 cans of beer, 120,000 bottles of vodka and almost 19,000 bottles of wine, according to Peter Hain, a British foreign office official.

Saddam also fleeced pilgrims to Iraqi Shiite shrines in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, making them travel in buses owned by the Al-Hoda company, controlled by Uday Hussein, and stay in designated hotels.

A nine-day pilgrimage costs at least $900, much of which went to Saddam’s family, according to the coalition.

But the principal source of the regime’s skimmed revenue was oil exports, including more than US$6.6 billion from the United Nations-sponsored oil-for-food program, General Accounting Office investigators found.

That program involved a direct exchange of exported Iraqi oil for food and medicine. It was part of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to prevent the diversion of oil proceeds to weapons.

In the last five years, the regime managed to duck the U.N. sanctions with a large-scale smuggling operation involving shipments through Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Persian Gulf countries.

During March 2002, Iraq smuggled out between 325,000 and 480,000 barrels a day, according to the General Accounting Office.

Barges, tankers, pipelines and trucks were used to get the oil out past U.N. inspectors’ scrutiny, and at one point, an estimated 45,000 Turkish truckers were on the roads, loaded up with oil, the agency said.

Until the sanctions were imposed, Iraqi oil exports were not monitored, and all were subject to the 5 percent kickback. In the early years of Saddam’s 25-year reign, Iraq exported as much as 3.2 million barrels per day.

The kickback-laundering system is essentially quite simple. Oil buyers, whether companies or countries, bought Iraqi oil from Saddam-controlled trading companies located outside the country.

The trading companies would forward 95 percent of the money to the Iraqi oil ministry and send Saddam’s 5 percent to shell companies outside Iraq, investigators said.

Directors of those shell companies would deposit the 5 percent in company bank accounts, and the money was effectively laundered. Swiss and French lawyers did the paperwork.

Gold, artworks, hotels, construction and metal fabrication concerns, money market accounts, commodity trading companies and publishing are among Saddam’s laundered investments.

Kroll Associates, a private investigative company, and the International Campaign to Indict Iraqi War Criminals, a U.S.-funded organization based in England, have identified other key figures in the financial network.

Hussam Rassam, a 67-year-old Iraqi businessman who established residency in Switzerland in 1987, was the administrator of the Saddam family pension fund, valued at $41.6 billion in 1990, according to a Kroll report.

Hussam "was appointed (administrator) in 1989 after the execution of his predecessor for skimming funds," said the report.

A telephone call to Hussam’s home in the Swiss Canton of Vaud was answered by a French-speaking woman who told a reporter, "Mr. Hussam isn’t here."

Whether Saddam and his sons are alive remains an open question, but it’s unlikely they could ever again enjoy their over-the-top opulent lifestyles.

Previously frozen Iraqi assets include $20 million in the Cayman Islands, $85 million in the Bahamas and $14 million in Japan.

"What’s the total, and where is it all?" asks Griffin. "I wish I knew." - WILLIAM SHERMAN


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