Iraqi agents have been scouring countries across Africa for uranium to help Saddam Hussein to build nuclear weapons, The Times has learned.

The dossier released by the government Tuesday noted in passing that Baghdad had recently tried to acquire "significant quantities of uranium from Africa." But what it left out was evidence supplied to the Cabinet Office's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) showing that Saddam's agents have secretly visited a number of African countries, 13 of which have uranium as a natural resource. 

Uranium, once enriched, could form the core of a nuclear bomb, but there is no evidence yet that Saddam has succeeded it acquiring it. "If Iraq had succeeded in buying uranium from Africa, the dossier would have said so," one Whitehall source said. 

The Iraqis are known to have targeted the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, though no uranium has been extracted there for several years. The mine that produced the uranium used in the American bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 is in an area controlled by Zimbabwean troops. 

The dossier draws on top-secret intelligence, and refers only generally to "Africa" as a potential source of uranium, possibly because of the fear that too detailed an insight might expose the sources. The prime minister has said that although an unprecedented amount of intelligence material published in the document, some of the most sensitive information has been excluded. 

The dossier states that Iraq is producing biological and chemical weapons that can be deployed in 45 minutes, that it is developing missiles with a range of 600 miles, and that Saddam may have given his son Qusay the power to order the use of such weapons. 

What the document does not do is link Saddam to Usama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks. The intelligence committee has concluded that Saddam has no sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism.