Remembering Al Qaim

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One of the more preposterous lies peddled by the Bush Administration during the run up to the Iraq war, was the one about "yellow cake." Iraq, it was claimed, had attempted to obtain yellow cake from Niger.

The documents used as evidence for the claim were poor forgeries. When the Bush Administration continued to represent them as genuine articles, Joe Wilson stepped into the spotlight and exclaimed that the evidence in question was a pack of lies.

Then all hell broke loose. At the time, Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, was a covert CIA officer stationed in Iran. Her assignment was to gather intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program. When her name was leaked and her cover blown, the press concentrated on how this affected plans to invade Iraq, how poor Valerie Plame was exposed and whether or not this really constituted a crime (was she technically a covert officer?)

Very little was said about how this affected U.S. intelligence efforts in Iran. Nothing was said about why the "evidence" was obviously preposterous even without the knowledge that the Niger documents were forgeries.

The first thought I had upon discovering that Joseph Wilson was married to Valerie Plame, was that Wilson showed an incredible recklessness. He certainly knew that she worked for the CIA. How could his actions not have jeopardized her career, even if no one were to leak her name? The public may not have made the connection, but foreign governments were certain to do so. Furthermore, Wilson’s whistle-blowing efforts were totally fruitless. President Bush still ordered an invasion of Iraq even when everyone knew full well that Iraq didn’t purchase yellow cake from Niger.

There were other reasons given to justify the attack on Iraq. There were the shocking aluminum tubes and the claim that Iraq could assemble WMD within 45 minutes. The government scare tactic finally proffered to justify the war?: "We just don’t know what they have!" — courtesy of Tony Blair and British Intelligence.

So why should it have been so obvious that the yellow cake claim was a lie? Al Qaim.

Al Qaim is a city near the western border of Iraq and Syria roughly 200 miles WNW of Baghdad. Since 2005, the U.S. military has had a base there — "Camp Al Qaim." There have been several, major war operations conducted from there.

The facility Iraq used to process yellow cake into uranium while it still had nuclear capabilities during the late 1980′s, was located in Al Qaim. Roughly 50 miles to the southeast of Al Qaim, was a phosphate mine (a by-product of which was yellow cake) in Akashat. Lord Butler’s report to the House of Commons entitled: Review of Intelligence On Weapons of Mass Destruction (.pdf), claims that the facilities at both Al Qaim and Akashat were damaged during the first gulf war. For this reason, the report says, Saddam Hussein would have to go outside Iraq to obtain the yellow cake needed to reinstate a nuclear program.

491. Natural uranium is the necessary starting point for all nuclear developments (whether for weapons or civil power). In the late 1970s, Iraq obtained large quantities of uranium ore from Niger, Portugal and Brazil. By the mid-1980s, however, Iraq had become self-sufficient in uranium ore, which was a by-product of indigenous phosphate mines at Akashat and purifying plants at Al Qaim and Al Jazira which extracted and purified the uranium ore for subsequent use in nuclear enrichment processes.

492. In the course of the first Gulf war, the facilities involved in this indigenous route were severely damaged. Subsequently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervised the dismantlement of all the facilities that Iraq had built to process, enrich and fabricate uranium, and removed all potentially fissile material. Some unprocessed uranium ore was left in country, but under IAEA safeguards and subject to regular inspections. Iraq would therefore have had to seek imports of uranium or uranium ore if it wished to restart its nuclear programme covertly. [sic]

The report goes on to say that Iraq contacted Niger in 1999. Therefore, British Intelligence assumed, due to the circumstances, the purpose of the trip was to purchase yellow cake.

What the report fails to revisit, even briefly, is Al Qaim. The uranium purification plant located there (built by Switzerland) was dismantled under supervision of the IAEA. So where was this yellow cake from Niger going to be processed? There isn’t even a whiff of speculation as to this crucial detail in Lord Butler’s report. There is absolutely no credible reason to seek the importation of yellow cake absent a facility to purify it into weapons-grade uranium. Such a facility wasn’t even alleged to exist elsewhere in Iraq by either the CIA or British Intelligence.

It is also preposterous to assert that it would have been necessary to import yellow cake. In 1987, the amount of phosphate rock reserves estimated to exist in the Akashat area was 5.5 billion tons — "enough to meet local needs for centuries."

Lord Butler’s report was a classic case of CYA. It was released to cover for the Bush Administration’s use of bogus intelligence while presenting a plausible reason why both the US and British intelligence agencies could ignore flaws in their data and still come to a conclusion that Iraq may have been trying to restart its WMD programs.

You may have heard that there is a "liberal media" seeking to discredit Bush. Strange then that this liberal media never once asked where Saddam would have processed raw uranium had he been able to procure it. This is especially troubling since Iraq had opened Al Qaim to reporters on September 2, 2002.

Reporters were flown by helicopter to a site at al Qaim, accompanied by Hussam Mohammed Amin, head of the Iraqi National Monitoring Directorate, the office used for liaison with UN inspectors. The reporters were shown a uranium extraction plant destroyed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

When it could have raised the truly relevant questions, the liberal media wasn’t interested. Lord Butler’s hand-wavy report kept the public occupied on irrelevant details and then the media, having asserted that there was nothing left to discover, turned its attention to poor, poor Valerie Plame.

The Bush Administration, by outing Valerie Plame, has, intentionally or not, created the ultimate "we just don’t know" scenario regarding Iran’s nuclear designs.

Valerie Plame is just a side show. She may not be playing a scripted part. Rather, she may have already brought back information supporting Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful. Based on the Bush Administration’s history, it is plausible that the motive for outing Plame was not retaliation, but the elimination of a potential source of contrary intelligence. Without credible evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, it must therefore be sinister, or so the logic goes. However, that scenario would also require Plame remain quiet about exculpatory intelligence she may have gathered while in Iran. If she were truly a whistle blower, this would be a perfect opportunity to blow that whistle.

She has instead decided to sue Bush Administration officials for the original offense it committed against her. It hasn’t so far proven successful, but it certainly has given the media and the public a convenient distraction between that and Scooter Libby’s prosecution. Four years of searching in Iraq for anything even remotely resembling a weapons program has produced exactly the same result and credibility as has O.J. Simpson’s search for the "real killers."

This isn’t to say that the outing of CIA assets is an acceptable tactic or that it is to be dismissed as unimportant, quite the contrary. It would appear as if the intent is to undermine intelligence-gathering efforts so that the data can remain micromanaged by the White House rather than by the experts who are tasked with gathering and analyzing it.

In spite of the Administration’s record, mainstream media "reporters" still repeat, without question, its claims that Iran seeks to expand its nuclear capabilities to include weapons production. To think that anyone would accept such claims without a great deal of solid evidence is to shudder. (For mainstream media reporters to think is to shudder.) Even if the Bush Administration presented photographs of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself producing nuclear weapons, one would be wise to remain skeptical.

The seemingly irreversible march towards war with Iran continues while a majority of Democrat and Republican Presidential candidates virtually chant "Nuke ‘em All!," and a "liberal media" focuses on the irrelevant. As this unfolds, let us remember Al Qaim.

Rick Fisk [send him mail] is a 44-year-old software developer and entrepreneur. He is married, has 3 children and resides in Austin, TX.

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