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Nuclear experts account for most of uranium looted from Iraqi n

Saturday, June 21, 2003

VIENNA, Austria -- Experts from the U.N. atomic agency have accounted for tons of uranium feared looted from Iraq's largest nuclear research facility, diplomats said Friday.

The natural and low-enriched uranium was secured at the Tuwaitha facility, 12 miles south of Baghdad, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity. Tuwaitha was left unguarded 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.

The mission -- whose scope was restricted by the U.S.-led interim administration of Iraq -- was not allowed not to give medical exams to Iraqis reported to have been sickened by contact with the materials, said the diplomats.

Fate unknown

They also said that the IAEA team also was unable to determine whether hundreds of radioactive materials used in research and medicine across the country were secure. Officials fear such material could be used to make crude radioactive devices known as "dirty bombs."

The diplomats, who are familiar with the workings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, agreed to discuss the mission to secure the uranium at the Tuwaitha facility only on condition they not be named.

Tuwaitha was thought to contain hundreds of tons of natural uranium and nearly two tons of low-enriched uranium, which could be further processed for arms use.

The diplomats did not detail how much uranium had been looted and where it was found, but it appeared much of it was on or near the site.

U.S. military officials who accompanied the IAEA team said last week that initial assessments indicated most of the uranium that had been stored at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center was accounted for.

Although at least 20 percent of the containers which stored the uranium were taken from the site, it appeared that looters had dumped the uranium before taking the barrels.

U.S. military experts involved in the cleanup of the nuclear site found piles of uranium in the storerooms and purchased most of the looted barrels back from villagers for about $3 a barrel.

The arrival of the U.N. group marked the first time since before 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 U.S. administration that Saddam Hussein 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.

After weeks of international pressure, the Pentagon allowed the IAEA into the site.


Associated Press writer Dafna Linzer in New York contributed to this report.


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