A former US ambassador who investigated reports that Niger sold uranium to Iraq has said Washington exaggerated the threat of the Iraqi weapons programme in the run-up to the war.
Both the UK and US said Iraq was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme
Joseph Wilson - US ambassador to Gabon between 1992-95 - was asked by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to check reports that Niger sold Baghdad processed uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
After spending eight days talking to dozens of people in Niger in February 2002, Mr Wilson concluded: "It was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."
Meanwhile, a senior Iraqi scientist - who was involved with Iraq's early weapons of mass destruction programme in the 1980s and after the first Gulf War - told the BBC that he knew of no hidden stockpiles or concealed research.
Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted
The UK-trained scientist - who asked that his identity be protected - admitted that he once helped produce mustard gas and hid from UN inspectors.
But he said that the stocks were later destroyed and the development programmes scrapped as the then Iraqi regime decided that the political cost of being caught was too high.
The scientist - who later worked in the Iraqi agency set up to track UN inspectors - said there were parts of the highly-secretive government where programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction might have been run, but insisted it was unlikely.
White House informed
Mr Wilson says he presented his findings to the US ambassador to Niger, the CIA and the State Department's African Affairs Bureau.
In an article written by Mr Wilson and published in Sunday's New York Times, the former ambassador said the CIA would have
passed on his assessment to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Yet US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair both cited the report earlier this year to support their charges that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain nuclear weapons and to justify their invasion of Iraq in March.
Britain's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction says that Saddam Hussein tried to get "significant quantities of uranium from Africa".
"Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programme was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," Mr Wilson told NBC's "Meet the Press" programme.
About a fifth of the world's exports of uranium come from Africa, but the uranium mined there is not of weapons grade and has to be processed before it could be used in weapons.
"Either the administration has information that it has not shared with the public or... there was selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision that had already been made to go to war," Mr Wilson said.
Carl Levin, senator for Michigan and the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told "Meet the Press" that Mr Wilson's new allegations were "deeply troubling".
"I've instructed my staff on the committee to make a very in-depth inquiry into a number of issues, including this uranium issue," he said.
He added that Ambassador Wilson's statement was extremely valuable "because it is personal evidence" from a respected source.
But Senator John Warner, a Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the Senate Intelligence Committee should conclude its own investigation of the material, before he decided whether his own panel should review the issue in more detail.
"We cannot sort this situation out in one minute. It is being carefully reviewed and objectively reviewed by the Senate in the Intelligence Committee."
Mr Warner added he did not see any conclusive evidence that the Bush administration had distorted intelligence reports for its own ends.
He added that he was confident weapons of mass destruction would eventually be found in Iraq.