Berlusconi backs intelligence director accused of passing fake uranium deal papers to U.S.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday came to the defense of an intelligence official accused of passing forged documents to the United States suggesting that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa, helping justify the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In a statement, Berlusconi said he appreciated the work that Nicolo Pollari, director of the SISMI intelligence agency, was doing and rejected suggestions that he should resign as a result of the allegations.

"I have esteem for Gen. Nicolo Pollari. I have followed his work with trust and I have always appreciated and continue to appreciate what he's doing at SISMI," Berlusconi said. He said he fully backed statements this week from his office defending Pollari.

Defense Minister Antonio Martino issued a similar statement of support.

Pollari is due to be questioned in the case this week by members of a parliamentary commission overseeing secret services.

Berlusconi's office has denied several news reports this week in the left-leaning daily La Repubblica alleging that the government was involved in giving the United States and Britain documents known to be forged that detailed a purported Iraqi deal to buy 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger.

The United States and Britain used the claim to bolster their case that Saddam Hussein was seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Some of the intelligence supporting the claim that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa was later deemed unreliable.

La Repubblica, a strong Berlusconi opponent, has said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Pollari was under pressure from Berlusconi _ a firm U.S. ally _ to make a strong contribution to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

To satisfy the request, Pollari used a dossier that originally had been fabricated in early 2001 with material stolen from Niger's embassy in Rome, La Repubblica said.

A former Italian president, Francesco Cossiga, suggested Sunday that Pollari should resign.

The statement was issued as Berlusconi traveled to Washington for a meeting Monday with U.S. President George W. Bush, AP reported. V.A.

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