Sunday, October 30, 2005

Italy defends spy chief over Iraq controversy


Italy defends spy chief over Iraq controversy
By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's government on Sunday rallied to the defense of spy chief Nicolo Pollari, whose agency is accused of passing off bad intelligence to the United States, helping bolster claims about Iraq's pre-war nuclear ambitions.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on the eve of a meeting on Monday with U.S. President George W. Bush, said he respected Pollari, trusted and appreciated his work and last week approved statements defending his Sismi military intelligence agency.

Pollari, Sismi's director, is due to address a parliamentary committee on November 3 about the allegations by La Repubblica newspaper. La Repubblica says the agency passed off fake documents showing Iraq had sought to obtain uranium from Niger.

Bush cited Iraq's attempted purchase of African uranium in a 2003 speech, helping to build support for war.

The Italian government's backing for Pollari was called into question earlier on Sunday by ex-President Francesco Cossiga, who said Pollari lacked support and should resign "in the interest of the country, the (Sismi) service and your own".

"This morning, my friend Nicolo Pollari, who feels, rightly, abandoned by everybody...called me to ask for advice. I did not hesitate and gave him just one piece: quickly resign as director of Sismi," Cossiga was quoted as saying in a letter to La Repubblica.

The office of Defense Minister Antonio Martino also said in statement that he "confirmed his full confidence in Pollari".


The Niger uranium allegations partly extend to Berlusconi, whom La Repubblica accused of siding with U.S. hawks before the war and possibly pressuring Sismi for evidence against Iraq.

The newspaper has focused much of its attention on a meeting on September 9, 2002, between Pollari and Stephen Hadley, who was at the time deputy White House national security adviser.

Hadley later took the blame for a reference to Iraq seeking uranium in Africa made in Bush's State of the Union address before the invasion of Iraq.

Berlusconi's office tried to quash speculation, saying on Friday there was no mention of the Iraq-Niger affair at Pollari's September 9 meeting in Washington, at which it said Hadley was a just silent guest.

In his State of the Union speech, Bush cited British -- not Italian intelligence -- as the source of the information on the uranium. However, La Repubblica said that an Italian middleman provided Britain with forged Niger documents.

Bush's 2003 uranium claim fueled criticism from the husband of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was later leaked, sparking a U.S. scandal that led to the indictment on Friday of Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

Berlusconi's office issued a flurry of statements last week denying any involvement of the government or Sismi in fabricating or transmitting the documents, declared crude forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Distancing himself from U.S. hawks, Berlusconi, a strong U.S. ally, said in a television interview due to air on Monday that he repeatedly tried to talk Bush out of invading Iraq.

"I tried many times to convince the American president not to go to war," Berlusconi was quoted as saying by La7 television network, which recorded the interview. "I tried to find other avenues and other solutions...But we didn't succeed."