Italy May Be Source on Uranium Story

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Italy may have passed on to the United States and Britain disputed claims that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa to make nuclear weapons, the head of a parliamentary intelligence committee said Wednesday.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's (search) government has denied that Italy's intelligence services passed on "documents" about the matter. But committee chief Enzo Bianco (search), speaking after a top government official addressed the commission in secret, did not deny that the information may have been passed on informally.

"This is possible," he said. "I don't rule it out."

Cabinet undersecretary and top Berlusconi aide Gianni Letta, who briefed the intelligence commission Wednesday afternoon, refused to comment on the hearing.

The United States and Britain used the claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger (search) to bolster the case for war, but it has since been widely questioned. News reports have said Italian intelligence was behind the documents that led to the claim.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Tuesday that Italy "never, never gave documentation relative to this issue to other nations' intelligence services."

"This could mean many things — that there weren't documents, that the government believed that the documents shouldn't be handed over," he said. "But the fact that documents were never handed over means that anyone who said this said something untrue."

Frattini refused to give further details on the matter, citing an investigation launched by Rome prosecutors who are looking into whether a crime may have been committed in the affair.

Critics have been pressuring U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the disputed uranium intelligence.

U.S. intelligence agencies had raised questions previously about assertions of the claimed activity by the Iraqi president. Underlying documents to support the contention proved to have been forged.

Also Wednesday, a leading Italian newspaper said an African diplomat had offered Italian intelligence services documents that allegedly were behind the uranium claims.

The report in Rome's La Repubblica quoted a source from Sismi, the Italian military intelligence service, as saying in late 2001 or early 2002, the MI6 British intelligence unit obtained the documents. The source implied that Italian colleagues provided the information to the British intelligence officials.

"There were several meetings, at a higher level, almost always in London," the source was quoted as saying. "Despite this positive climate, we don't know if it were the English who passed on that stuff to the CIA. It's rather probable."

On Sunday, the office of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is a staunch ally of Bush, branded as baseless news reports that Italian intelligence had obtained the documents.

The Sismi source, La Repubblica said, said the Italian Foreign Ministry had raised "strong objections" and "protests" about the information provided by Italian intelligence.

La Repubblica, a leftist publication which is strongly opposed to Berlusconi's center-right government, published what it said were copies of four documents allegedly used to bolster the claim that Saddam was trying to buy uranium.