By Bruce Johnston
September 6, 2004

A row has broken out between France and Italy over whose intelligence service is to blame for the Niger uranium controversy, which led to Britain and America claiming wrongly that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear bombs.

Italian diplomats say privately that France was behind forged documents that at first appeared to prove that Iraq was seeking "yellow-cake" uranium in Niger - evidence used by Britain and America to promote the case for war with Iraq.

They say that France's intelligence services used an Italian-born middle-man to circulate a mixture of genuine and bogus documents to "trap" the two leading proponents of war with Saddam Hussein into making unsupportable claims.

They have passed to British journalists a photograph that they claim shows the Italian go-between, sometimes known as "Giacomo" - who cannot be identified for legal reasons - meeting a senior French intelligence officer based in Brussels.

"The French hoped that the bulk of the documents would be exposed as false, since many of them obviously were," an Italian official said.

"Their aim was to make the allies look ridiculous in order to undermine their case for war."

According to an account given to the Sunday Telegraph, France was driven by "a cold desire to protect their privileged, dominant trading relationship with Saddam, which in the case of war would have been at risk".

The allegation, which has infuriated French officials, follows reports last month that "Giacomo" claimed to have been unwittingly used by Sismi, Italy's foreign intelligence service, to circulate the false documents. The papers found their way to the CIA and to MI6, and in September 2002 Tony Blair accused Saddam of seeking "significant quantities" of uranium from an undisclosed African country - in fact, Niger. US President George Bush made a similar claim in his State of the Union address to Congress four months later, using information passed to him by MI6.

The French hoped that the bulk of the documents would be exposed as false, since many of them obviously were.

The International Atomic Energy Agency expressed doubts over the documents' authenticity, however, and in March 2003 declared them false.

The suggestion that Italy, driven by its Government's support for America, had forged the documents to help to justify the war in Iraq, caused a furore and has now led to the revelation of new information about "Giacomo". The Sunday Telegraph has been told that the man has a criminal record for extortion and fraud, but draws a monthly salary from the DGSE - the French equivalent of MI6 - for which he is said to have worked for the past five years.

He had an expense account and received bonuses in return for carrying out orders allegedly given him by the head of the French service's operations in Belgium.

"Giacomo" could not be reached for comment on the claims last week at either his home in Formello or at his second home in Luxembourg. American intelligence officials were further misled over Saddam's supposed attempt to buy uranium when France - which effectively controls mining in Niger - told Washington that it had reason to believe that Iraq was trying to do so. "Only later did Paris inform Washington that its belief had been based on the same documents that had tricked the Americans and the British," an Italian diplomat said.

"This was la grande trappola (the big trap). The Americans were now convinced by the French that Saddam really was trying to buy uranium. They thought the French must be right, since not even a gram of uranium in Niger could be shifted without their knowledge."

[Edited by bb on 09-06-2004 at 10:11 PM]