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Report Reveals British Deceit, Denial, And Cover-up in '80s Arms Sales to Iraq

By Fred Barbash
The Washington Post
LONDON

High-level British officials misled the public, the Parliament, the courts and even one another in their handling of policy on arms sales to Iraq during the late 1980s and into 1990, a long-awaited independent inquiry released Thursday concluded.

The 2,000-page report on the most searching look yet into the inner workings of the British bureaucracy said the government secretly relaxed its ban on sales of arms-related machinery to Iraq in 1988, but repeatedly and deliberately denied doing so when queried by members of Parliament, for fear of adverse public reaction.

While the U.S. government has been hit by its own "arms to Iran" and "arms to Iraq" fallout, Thursday's report was awaited with special anticipation here because the party and many of the officials in office during the events covered in the report are still in power, including Prime Minister John Major.

In addition, it is viewed not as a commentary just on arms policies but on the British way of governing, regarded by many commentators as among the most secretive in the democratic West. "In circumstances where disclosure might be politically or administratively inconvenient," it said, "the balance struck by the government comes down, time and again, against full disclosure."

Under this policy, defense, intelligence and export-licensing officials allowed a machine-tool company to export to Iraq machinery with military uses. In fact, British intelligence used the company to obtain useful information on Baghdad. It then failed to inform customs investigators of this, according to Thursday's report, and allowed them to proceed with a criminal prosecution of the company's executives. It failed, as well, to inform then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

As the trial got underway in 1992, cabinet members received flawed advice from Britain's attorney general that prompted them to withhold from the defendants "sensitive" information that tended to exonerate the men. When the trial judge discovered this, he threw out the case. The case, concluded Richard Scott, the veteran judge who prepared Thursday's report, "should never have been commenced."

Scott said, however, that he could not conclude that any of the dozens of ministers and bureaucrats involved in the events - many of them still in high office - had acted maliciously. In their dealings with Parliament, however, he said they nevertheless acted "deliberately."

The Scott inquiry, which heard 268 witnesses and reviewed thousands of documents, stemmed from the collapse of a criminal prosecution of executives of Matrix Churchill, a British machine-tool manufacturer.

At the time of the Iran-Iraq war, from 1980 to 1988, Britain agreed to abide by a U.N. arms embargo against both sides.