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Faked papers thicken fog around Iraq war

To the growing list of mysteries involving Iraq _ Where is Saddam Hussein? Where are the weapons of mass destruction? What really happened to Jessica Lynch? _ comes this:

Who tried to frame "Gorgeous George"?

Known for his dapper wardrobe, George Galloway represents a district of Glasgow, Scotland, in Britain's House of Commons. For years, he was the sharpest critic of Anglo-American policy toward Iraq.

Shortly before the war began in March, Galloway compared President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to "wolves" for attacking an essentially defenseless country. He also urged British soldiers to refuse to obey "illegal" orders to fight, and in an appearance on Abu Dhabi TV, seemed to call on Arab nations to rise up against Britain and the United States in defense of Iraq.

"Gorgeous George, member for Baghdad Central," critics derisively called the most controversial member of Parliament.

So it came as big news _ if not a total surprise _ when the Christian Science Monitor and London's Daily Telegraph published stories in April alleging what many critics suspected: that Galloway was in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

Both newspapers based their sensational reports on documents discovered in Baghdad after the city fell to American forces. A Telegraph reporter going through the ruins of Iraq's Foreign Ministry found a "secret archive of correspondence" purportedly showing that Galloway had received at least 375,000 pounds ($619,000) a year from the regime; that Galloway had made huge profits from the "oil for food" program; and that, dissatisfied with the money he was getting, he asked for even more.

The documents also purportedly showed that a charity Galloway set up to bring an Iraqi girl with cancer to Britain for treatment actually was a front to cover his dealings with Iraqi intelligence services.

Galloway, 48, called the allegations absurd and began legal action against the Telegraph.

The Monitor, meanwhile, had obtained several other documents, these from an Iraqi general who said they came from a home once used by Hussein's son Qusay. The documents alleged that Hussein's regime had paid Galloway $10-million over 11 years to promote its interests in the West.

But after questions arose about the documents' authenticity, the Monitor began its own investigation. Among other things, experts found that the two "oldest" documents _ dated 1992 and 1993 _ actually were written within the past few months, according to ink tests.

On June 20, the Monitor said the documents were forgeries. "We apologize to Mr. Galloway and to our readers," the paper's editor wrote.

The Telegraph stands by its story. It notes that the Monitor's experts reviewed copies of some of the Telegraph's documents and found them to be "consistent" with authentic Iraqi records. However, the Telegraph has not said what, if anything, it has done to independently verify the authenticity of its own material.

If you're into conspiracy theories, "l"affaire George" provides rich fodder. Does it seem a remarkable coincidence that of the hundreds of journalists who descended on Baghdad in April, it was a British reporter for a paper supportive of the war and critical of Galloway who found the incriminating documents?

Even the reporter, David Blair, seemed to find the circumstances rather strange. "Why the contents of the room with the box files survived is a mystery," he wrote, noting that the rest of the Foreign Ministry had been burned and "pillaged to destruction."

Were the Telegraph's documents really authentic or had they been faked and planted? And if so, who faked and planted them? Could it have been Western intelligence agencies trying to discredit Galloway, as Galloway himself has charged?

The questions are all the more pressing given another apparent forgery, one that directly affected the decision to go to war. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush said the British government had learned that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

If true, that could have indicated Iraq was trying to make a nuclear bomb.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency later said the claim was based on forged documents. And writing in the New York Times on Sunday, a former U.S. diplomat sent to Africa by the CIA said he found no evidence Iraq had bought uranium from the country of Niger, as alleged.

On Monday, the White House acknowledged for the first time that the claim might be wrong and that Bush should not have included it in his speech.

As for Galloway, he is not yet in the clear. His charity is under investigation and the Labor Party, which suspended him for his harsh antiwar stance, is trying to determine whether he disgraced the party.

But some of the most serious allegations against Galloway have

proved to be an elaborate hoax that fooled one of America's best newspapers. And as they come amid what critics say is a mounting litany of exaggerations, deceptions, misstatements and flawed intelligence, one can hardly blame Galloway for feeling at least partly exonerated.

"What we said as an antiwar movement is daily being vindicated, indeed more spectacularly, more swiftly even than we predicted," he told the BBC.

_ Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at