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U.N. nuclear experts visit Iraqi plant
( 2003-06-08 11:14) (7)

Representatives of the U.N. nuclear agency got a firsthand look Saturday at the postwar damage to Iraq's main nuclear facility, peering through broken windows and roaming the grounds to assess the extent of looting and disarray.

The visit to the Tuwaitha nuclear plant was conducted under close watch by American officials, as is the entire mission by the International Atomic Energy Agency - which aims to determine how much damage was done to the plant during the war and what went missing.

For three hours under a blazing afternoon sun, the U.N. team, accompanied by American weapons hunters, toured the grounds and looked into rooms where tons of uranium and radioactive sources had been safely stored for more than a decade.

Tuwaitha, Iraq's largest nuclear facility and now defunct, was left unguarded for two weeks after Iraqi troops fled the area on the eve of the war.

U.S. troops didn't secure the area until April 7. In the meantime, looters from the surrounding villages stripped it of uranium storage barrels they later used to hold drinking water. Villagers said the looting continued when the Marines handed over control to another unit in mid-April.

In preparation for the IAEA return, the U.S. military ordered villagers to sell back the barrels for $3 each. The Pentagon said they had retrieved 100 barrels so far. Some 3,000 barrels of low-grade uranium were stored at Tuwaitha, and even while the IAEA was inside the sprawling complex Saturday, Iraqi workers wearing white suits and breathing masks dropped off more of the blue barrels.

A U.S. weapons team created to dismantle and eliminate any nuclear weapons found in Iraq has already conducted its own assessment of the site.

Col. Mickey Freeland, who heads that team, refused to say how much uranium they believe is now missing. "I'm not going to state what we did or didn't find," he told The Associated Press before heading out to the site with the IAEA team.

Another American colonel, Tim Madere, said some 20 percent of Tuwaitha's uranium is unaccounted for.

Freeland's team is accompanying the small group of seven IAEA members wherever it goes, and the military has placed the U.N. experts in a Baghdad hotel it is running. It wasn't clear Saturday if the U.N. experts - who arrived in the Iraqi capital the day before - would even be allowed to leave the hotel after work hours without troop escort, military sources and IAEA members said privately,

The Pentagon has said the military presence is meant to provide security and support, but the IAEA group wasn't allowed to use neutral U.N. vehicles for transportation. Instead, they were taken to Tuwaitha in a bus driven by a U.S. soldier traveling in a 10-car military convoy.

The arrival of the U.N. group - seven men, none of them American, whose expertise ranges from nuclear physics to arms-control analysis - marked the first time since the war began that representatives from the agency returned to Iraq.

The IAEA had long monitored Iraq's nuclear programs and recently investigated claims by the Bush administration that Saddam was reviving his nuclear weapons program.

The head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, said early on there was no evidence to support Washington's claims, and other U.N. inspectors found no signs of biological or chemical weapons.

So far, U.S. weapons hunters, including Freeland and his team, also haven't found any of the weapons the Bush administration said it went to war - without U.N. support - to destroy.

President Bush claimed two mobile labs that the CIA says were designed for biological weapons production were evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But he quickly backed away from that, and arms-control experts are quietly expressing skepticism about whether the trailers were even related to biological research.

At least two senior weapons analysts familiar with the laboratory finds have said their work shows the laboratories could have had nonmilitary uses as well. The analysts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to discuss further specifics while the research is ongoing.

The Bush administration cut off the IAEA from the weapons hunt after its assessments of Iraq's nuclear programs hurt Washington's efforts to win international backing for the war. Relations further soured amid early war reports that U.S. troops had failed to secure Tuwaitha and other nuclear facilities in Iraq from looters.

After weeks of pleading by the IAEA and the arms-control community, the Pentagon finally relented and agreed to let a small IAEA team in under strict guidelines that permit the United Nations to visit Tuwaitha on a one-time-only trip that must be wrapped up by June 25.

Iraqi scientists who surveyed the looted plant before the U.S. troops began protecting it said villagers left behind piles of powdered uranium inside a building known as "Location C." The scientists cemented over the spilled materials to prevent leakage or further exposure to residents.

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