Ruth Berry: Was that an explosion the fax just emitted?

The New Zealand First press release with the explosive headline rolled off the press gallery faxes late on Thursday afternoon last week.

The explosive headline - "Saddam Hussein Minister Hiding in NZ" - was, most unusually, followed by a question mark.

Eyes rolled in the Beehive. It seemed an extraordinary claim. What did the question mark and cautious language following it indicate? Was Mr Peters airing a rumour? Or laying a trap?

Immigration Minister Paul Swain's office appeared low-key, yet the official response was careful.

Mr Peters' release said the man was allegedly seeking refugee status.

The minister had no knowledge, and neither did the Immigration Service, of any application of that nature, Mr Swain's spokesman said.

But when the minister heard on TVNZ's late bulletin that night Mr Peters was "staking his reputation" on the claim, doubts are understood to have vanished.

The officials went back to the files and spent the weekend trolling through them.

On Monday they were confident order had been restored. The man Mr Peters was referring to was former Iraqi diplomat Zohair Mohammad al-Omar, and officials had revoked his visitor's permit, it was announced.

It didn't appear any doubt remained, but it is now conceded that a shred did. Had Mr Peters really got some of the key details wrong?

Mr Swain is no longer talking to the media about the issue.

But Mr Peters is and says he was 95 per cent sure "they'd got the wrong man - not that they have, but they'd not got my man".

Confirmation for Mr Peters came as Helen Clark answered questions on the issue. At which point he triumphantly released the minister's name.

If it gave him satisfaction, Mr Peters wasn't about to admit to politicking by showing it.

"Too few New Zealanders understand as a country what this means to our international reputation. It's bad news, so we don't take any delight in NZ First in this issue," he barks.

But ask him about how he felt about embarrassing the Government and a little satisfaction slips out.

"I knew what the allegations were going to be - 'Peters has got his facts wrong', which they would have delighted to say.

"That's why they were looking so smug and were tittering initially. And I thought "Well, you won't be smiling shortly."

Mr Peters maintains various ethnic communities are represented among his 25 to 30 informants.

Among them are Chinese, concerned that former Red Guards are sheltering here.

Might they be the subject of his next fax?

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