VIENNA, Austria -- Washington's showdown with Saddam Hussein moved Monday to a windswept corner of Austria, where scientists with the U.N. nuclear agency's laboratory received the first samples collected by weapons inspectors in Iraq.
The results of their analysis, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said would begin immediately, could bolster -- or undermine -- attempts by the Bush administration to make a case for war.
Eight samples were brought Monday to the IAEA's Clean Laboratory Unit outside Vienna for screening, and another 20 samples were expected by the weekend, nuclear agency spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told The Associated Press.
Gwozdecky would not elaborate on where in Iraq the samples were taken or say if the initial materials were air, soil, dust or water samples. The IAEA's lab in Seibersdorf, about 40 miles east of Vienna, will screen such materials for signs of unusual radioactivity.
Using electron microscopes, gamma and thermal ionization spectrometers and other tools, scientists at the lab say they will be able to find evidence -- if any exists -- that Saddam has a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iraq denies it has any weapons of mass destruction.
David Kay, a former chief U.N. nuclear inspector, told the AP he doubts the screenings will turn up enough to make an impression in an increasingly impatient Washington.
"No one really expects the first round of samples to show anything. The Iraqis have gotten much better at hiding than they were in the old days," Kay, now a fellow at the Virginia-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said in a telephone interview.
"All this just plays right into Saddam's hands," he said. "He's buying time. He knows that with time, the anti-war movement will grow, and he knows that the United States cannot maintain 90,000 troops in the Gulf forever."
An initial analysis will take two to three weeks.
, and the findings will be brought to IAEA headquarters in Vienna for interpretation and cross-checking against a database that contains hundreds of thousands of documents from past inspection missions in Iraq, Gwozdecky said.
The IAEA, which is heading the hunt for nuclear weapons in Iraq, hopes to have results from the screening of the first two dozen or so samples by the time agency director Mohamed ElBaradei reports back to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 27.
Swathed in protective suits and caps, IAEA technicians will look for radiation that exceeds the levels normally found in nature as they screen the samples.
The Seibersdorf lab is led by a team of eight scientists backed by a support staff of 200 and a robot that can run samples overnight. A lopsided Christmas tree outside the front entrance testifies to lab director David Donohue's pledge that his staff is prepared to work around-the-clock and through the holidays if necessary.
Using gamma spectrometers, the lab also will be able to distinguish between recent releases of radiation and residue from the distant past, as well as tell the difference between isotopes used for medical applications and those of higher quality and intensity that a nuclear program would require.
If the lab gets a "hit" -- evidence of an unusual amount of radioactivity -- duplicate samples will be sent to sister labs in the United States, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Japan or Australia for verification.
Among the U.N. inspectors' most important tools are 4-square-inch cotton swabs, which are being used to swipe the sides of suspect buildings in Iraq. The swabs are double-bagged and carefully labeled to avoid contamination and minimize the possibility of a mix-up.
The swabs will collect minute particles of dust, and by analyzing the material, U.N. scientists will be able to detect uranium or plutonium down to a trillionth of a gram, making it impossible to conceal an active nuclear program, the IAEA says.
Kay, the former inspector, said he's skeptical the United States will wait for science to run its course.
"The IAEA thinks inspections can disarm. The (Bush) administration doesn't really believe that," he said. "My gut feeling is this is a process that will be concluded one way or the other by February or early March."
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