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U.N. weapons team prepares to return to Iraqi nuclear site

Friday, May 30, 2003

MANSIA, Iraq -- The word spread through town, trumpeted on loudspeakers attached to American vehicles: Return the containers taken from Iraq's largest nuclear facility, and we'll pay you $3 a barrel. Refuse, and you might be arrested.

Now 70 empty barrels -- purchased more than a decade ago by U.N. nuclear inspectors to store the Tuwaitha plant's 2 tons of uranium -- are in the hands of the U.S. military. The contents have vanished, however, and other stolen containers sit in a nearby schoolyard, a silent and unrecognized danger.

This is the jumbled scene that awaits the International Atomic Energy Agency, now headed back to Iraq under strictly set U.S. conditions, as it attempts to find out what happened on the Americans' watch. The team plans to arrive June 6.

The United States tried to keep the IAEA out of the country, but reluctantly agreed to its return under pressure from the arms control community, which was concerned about the plant's safety and American capability to secure the area and account for its contents.

According to U.S. and U.N. officials, the IAEA team will only be allowed to inspect Tuwaitha, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad, and not any of the other looted nuclear sites the agency had been safeguarding for more than a decade.

The United States told the IAEA that the team must be relatively small, with fewer than 10 members, and all must be safety experts rather than actual weapons inspectors. The group can remain in the country for up to two weeks but must stay on the grounds of Tuwaitha and not in Baghdad, where they had been based before the war.

"We're setting up some tents for them at Tuwaitha, and they'll stay out there," said Col. Tim Madere, an unconventional weapons expert with the Army's V Corps.

IAEA officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were told the trip would be a one-time only visit. A U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that was discussed but could change depending on how the trip goes.

IAEA officials were unhappy about the terms but said they would take what they could get.

"The mission will try to determine what nuclear material might have gone missing as a result of the looting and reports of destruction that we have seen over the last six weeks," said Mark Gwozdecky, IAEA spokesman.

He said the team would try to "collect as much of the scattered material as possible, repackage it, reseal it and secure the facility."

In addition, he said the IAEA was waiting for the U.N. Security Council -- not the United States -- to decide the inspectors' future in Iraq.

The comments on both sides and the atmosphere surrounding the trip illustrates the poisoned relations caused by the IAEA's prewar assessments that Iraq didn't recently have a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration blames those assessments, in part, for its failure to win international support for the war.

Even now, the IAEA insists that it alone has the legal authority -- based on an international treaty signed by the United States -- to oversee Tuwaitha and other Iraqi nuclear facilities.

The United States maintains it has taken over those responsibilities as the occupying power. But senior U.S. military officers involved in the hunt have said privately that U.N. support and know-how would have aided their work significantly.

In the meantime, U.S. troops are trying to figure out what's missing from Tuwaitha. So far, military officials have said, at least 20 barrels of low-grade or natural uranium appeared to be gone.

Last week, American troops, accompanied by Iraqi health workers, entered Mansia, a village on the other side of a crumbling cement-and-brick wall that encloses much of Tuwaitha's 23,000 acres.

"The Americans came and announced they were buying the barrels for $3, so we all sold them," said Karam Yousef a 53-year-old unemployed father of eight whose crumbling mud hovel lacks running water and power.

The buyback program was conducted on the same day in four other villages.

But on a recent visit, Associated Press reporters saw eight containers of hazardous materials strewn in the yard of the Mother of the Prophet junior high school. Town clerics arranged a drop-off site in the yard after warning residents the materials could be unsafe.

Four containers had IAEA markings and warnings -- in English only -- that the contents contained dangerous chemicals. Four other metal suitcases with combination locks carried similar markings, though IAEA officials who saw photographs of the luggage couldn't account for their contents.

Town officials said no Americans visited the yard, although Iraqi nuclear experts knew the items were there.

"They've been sitting in the yard for more than one month," said Sabah Abed Al-Delphi. "The Iraqi experts were here and said they would come back to take the materials away, but they haven't."


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