BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After a three-month absence, the U.N. nuclear agency came to postwar Iraq on Friday to assess the nation's biggest nuclear plant -- abandoned, looted and left in alarming disarray.
Representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency -- operating this time under continuous U.S. military escort -- will try to figure out exactly what's missing from the Tuwaitha nuclear facility and how to find it.
The sprawling site, left unguarded by U.S. troops who passed by during the war, was ransacked by nearby residents who dumped uranium out of IAEA barrels, then used the potentially radioactive containers to hold drinking water.
The U.S. military has conducted an initial radiation survey in the villages, and a health study is set to begin in coming days.
"There is no health risk to the population or the soldiers guarding the site," said Mickey Freeland, part of the U.S. nuclear team involved in the weapons hunt. His team has been assigned to escort the IAEA, and the two groups are staying together at the al-Rasheed hotel, under U.S. military control.
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 war began that representatives of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency returned to Iraq.
Riding through Baghdad on a small tour bus driven by a U.S. soldier, the team passed bombed-out buildings, tank wreckage and defaced posters of Saddam Hussein.
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.
Bush administration officials blame the U.N. weapons inspectors' findings for undermining the American government's case for war. The inspectors uncovered no weapons of mass destruction during their 3 1/2-month search before the war.
According to strict Pentagon rules governing their visit, members of the current team are not weapons inspectors. Instead, they are nuclear safety experts assigned to assess the amount of damage -- including lost uranium and spilled radioactive material -- caused by looters.
Iraqi scientists who surveyed the looted plant before the U.S. troops began protecting it said villagers left behind piles of powdered uranium. The scientists cemented over the spilled materials to prevent leakage or further exposure to residents.
The United States tried to keep the IAEA out of postwar Iraq. But it reluctantly agreed to allow the agency's return under pressure from the arms-control community, which was concerned about Tuwaitha's safety and U.S. capability to secure the area and account for its contents.
"The IAEA can best tell what's missing, and they're fully prepared to do that pretty rapidly," said David Albright, an American nuclear expert.
U.S. military commanders acknowledged this week that they remain unequipped to handle the nuclear site.
"I know that the Tuwaitha facility is larger than the assets we have now in country to deal with it," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
For more than a decade, the IAEA monitored nearly two tons of uranium, plus radioactive sources tagged at the defunct facility. But the United States cut U.N. inspectors out of the weapons hunt when it went to war without Security Council backing.
With the United States leading its own so far fruitless weapons search, the return of the IAEA drew far less fanfare than when its inspectors arrived last November after a four-year break.
The Pentagon, insistent that the IAEA return would not be a precedent for resumed U.N. weapons inspections, told the agency this would be a one-time visit limited to Tuwaitha. Washington kept the number of IAEA staff to seven and said the assessment would have to be completed within two weeks.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the U.N. team would work independently of coalition forces. But already Friday, it was clear their mission would be closely controlled by the U.S. military.
Freeland said his team would meet with the IAEA group Saturday to discuss their itinerary and that the IAEA team would be accompanied at all times.
Iraqi nuclear scientists hope the U.N. team can determine what happened at Tuwaitha under the Americans' watch.
Dr. Hamed Al-Bahili, who helped design and open Tuwaitha in 1968, was one of the first on the scene after Iraqi troops fled the site.
Raising his hand two inches above the linoleum floor in his Baghdad living room, Al-Bahili said: "The uranium was all over the floor -- all over the ground outside. Piles of it. We poured cement over it inside the rooms because there was no other way to handle it."
Al-Bahili said he pleaded with impoverished villagers not to touch the blue barrels the IAEA had used to store the uranium. "But there were thousands of people -- they just kept coming," he said.