OSLO, Norway - Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency that he heads won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize Friday for their efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
ElBaradei, a 63-year-old lawyer from Egypt, has headed the U.N. nuclear agency as it grappled with the crisis in Iraq and the ongoing efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The Nobel Committee said ElBaradei and the IAEA should be recognized for addressing one of the greatest dangers facing the world.
"At a time when the threat of nuclear arms is again increasing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to underline that this threat must be met through the broadest possible international cooperation. This principle finds its clearest expression today in the work of the IAEA and its director general."
ElBaradei, who was reappointed last month to a third term, has had to contend with U.S. opposition to his tenure. Much of the opposition stemmed from Washington's perception that he was being too soft on Iran for not declaring it in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That stance blocked a U.S. bid to haul Tehran before the U.N. Security Council for more than two years.
He also refused to endorse Washington's contention that Iran was working to make nuclear weapons and disputed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had an active atomic weapons program - both claims that remain unproven, despite growing suspicions about Tehran's nuclear agenda.
ElBaradei and the agency had been among the names mentioned as speculation mounted in recent days that the Nobel committee would seek to honor the victims of nuclear weapons and those who try to contain their use.
The committee recognized "their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way."
A record 199 nominations were received for the prize, which includes $1.3 million, a gold medal and a diploma. ElBaradei and the IAEA will share the award when they receive it on Dec. 10 in the Norwegian capital.
In Vienna, where the agency is based, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: "I never thought we'd see this day. This is the proudest day for the IAEA. We are proud, astonished, elated."
The Nobel Committee called ElBaradei "an unafraid advocate" of new measures to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"At a time when disarmament efforts appear deadlocked, when there is a danger that nuclear arms will spread both to states and to terrorist groups, and when nuclear power again appears to be playing an increasingly significant role, IAEA's work is of incalculable importance," the committee said.
Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told The Associated Press that as a friend and colleague of ElBaradei, he was "very happy on his behalf."
"It is very encouraging and fortunate," Blix said. "I see it as an endorsement of the professional and independent role of the IAEA and of international verification in the field of nuclear power and non-proliferation."
He declined to comment on whether the award should be seen as a message that the United States should have listened more to the IAEA before invading Iraq.
However he said the IAEA is best-equipped to deal with nuclear situations such as those in Iran and North Korea.
Under ElBaradei, the IAEA has risen from a nondescript bureaucracy monitoring nuclear sites worldwide to a pivotal institution at the vortex of efforts to disarm the two regimes.
The austere and methodical diplomat took a strident line as he guided the agency through the most serious troubles it faced since the end of the Cold War.
He accused North Korea, for example, of "nuclear brinkmanship" in December 2002 after it expelled two inspectors who were monitoring a mothballed nuclear complex. Pyongyang said the plant needed to go back on line in light of an electricity shortage.
Norway's outgoing Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik said it was "gratifying" that IAEA and ElBaradei won the peace prize.
"This is a homage to their crucial efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, in order to prevent the use of such weapons in conflicts between states or in terrorist attacks," he said.
"Mohammad El Baradei is an outstanding leader with great integrity. He has always sought to achieve results by negotiations. We saw this clearly during the period before the Iraq war, when he all the way to the end requested that the international weapons inspectors continue their work."
Ultimately a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and no weapons of mass destruction were found. An international occupation force remains in the country.
© Copyright 2005 Associated Press