UN Atomic Chief Again Warns US About Iraq
Published on Tuesday, May 20, 2003 by the Washington Post
UN Atomic Chief Again Warns US About Iraq
by Walter Pincus

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned the United States for the third time yesterday of the danger of radioactive contamination in Iraq because of looting at nuclear sites and called on the Bush administration to allow his safety and emergency response teams to enter the country.

In a statement, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Vienna-based IAEA, said he was deeply concerned that "nuclear and radioactive materials may no longer be under control" in Iraq. He said a safety and security team from the agency should be deployed immediately to avoid "a potentially serious humanitarian situation."

A U.S. soldier stands guard at a looted former nuclear facility in Tuwaitha, south of Baghdad, May 12, 2003. The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency warned on May 19 that a nuclear contamination emergency may be developing in Iraq and appealed to the U.S. to let his experts back into the country. 'I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites,' International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
ElBaradei sent his first warning about the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center in Iraq to the administration on April 10 -- the day after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's government collapsed. He also supplied U.S. officials with data about the nuclear material at the facility, 30 miles south of Baghdad. At that time, according to the IAEA, U.S. officials gave the agency "oral assurances" that U.S. forces were protecting the site.

The administration has been weighing for more than a month whether to allow inspectors from the IAEA or the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission to return to Iraq. A decision was first set aside until Iraq was secure enough to have the U.N. personnel return. More recently, it has been among the issues involved in internal U.S. discussions about a draft U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution to lift international sanctions on Iraq.

Yesterday's statement from ElBaradei came after recent media stories reported on extensive looting at several Iraqi nuclear sites, including Tuwaitha. At Tuwaitha, the IAEA had stored under seal natural uranium oxide, also known as "yellow cake," low-enriched uranium and other radioactive sources. Media accounts said the materials had been spread on the ground, stolen or removed from their shielding.

Some reports said local residents had dumped yellow cake powder on the ground so the barrels could be used for for storing water. That created a radiation hazard for those exposed to the powder or drinking water from the barrels.

News stories also reported that signs of radiation sickness had appeared among residents of villages near Tuwaitha. On April 29, ElBaradei sent his second warning to the administration about the potential dangers involved with cobalt 60, cesium 137 and other nuclear waste at the facility. He said yesterday he has yet to receive a response.

The U.S. Central Command, overseeing military operations in Iraq, said Friday it would "soon" begin an assessment of Tuwaitha using an 11-member Army nuclear disablement team. Yesterday, a Central Command spokesman said he could not confirm that team had reached Tuwaitha. The group, trained in nuclear physics and radiation safety, is to "assess the quantity and condition" of the nuclear material stored at the facility, the Central Command said.

David Albright, a participant in the United Nations nuclear inspections in the 1990s, said yesterday he was contacted last week by Iraqi nuclear scientists. He said the scientists were worried about U.S. military intelligence officers using Iraqi exiles associated with the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-Hussein group that has assumed a prominent role in postwar Iraq, in their questioning.

Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said he had been told the exiles provided by the INC were serving both as interpreters for the U.S. military and as messengers. In some instances, Albright said, the exiles told relatives of scientists that if they don't show up for meetings "the tanks will come and arrest you."

Since late 2001, INC head Ahmed Chalabi has produced Iraqi defectors who said they had first-hand knowledge of Hussein's weapons programs.

In December 2001, Chalabi produced a defector who said he was a civil engineer and had worked on renovations of illegal laboratories, facilities and storage sites where Iraq was hiding biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. While senior Bush administration officials later said the CIA did not trust this defector's information, he was extensively debriefed by the Defense Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Pentagon.

Apparently no sites this defector identified have been productive, since U.S. teams have yet to uncover chemical or biological weapons or their precursor components.

To carry on the weapons inspection program, Undersecretary of Defense Stephen A. Cambone is expected to announce today that the new Iraq Survey Group, which contains at least a dozen former U.N. weapons inspectors, will soon begin its work in the country. Charles Duelfer, the chief deputy director of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in the 1990s, has been in Baghdad for some time helping to organize the operation.

The United States in February began recruiting U.S. citizens who worked for UNSCOM and had made at least 10 trips to Iraq, according to one participant. Infighting between Pentagon officials and others has apparently delayed dispatching the former UNSCOM inspectors to Iraq, sources said.

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