- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

VIENNA, Austria

The chief U.N. nuclear inspector has urged caution against prematurely judging Syria’s atomic program by reminding diplomats about false U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, comments released Tuesday show.

The bluntness of remarks by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reflected tensions over whether Syria should be given potentially sensitive nuclear guidance at a time it is being investigated for suspected secret atomic activities.

The U.S. and its close allies are opposed. Supporting Syria is Iran — itself denied technical aid two years ago because it was under U.N. sanctions for defying Security Council demands to curtail nuclear activities. Russia and China also support Damascus.

Compromise appeared near as a meeting of the IAEA’s 35 board members on the issue adjourned Tuesday. Participants were deliberating on a statement that approved IAEA help in planning Syria’s first power-producing nuclear plant while pointing out “strong reservations” by some board members, according to a copy of the internal paper given to the Associated Press.

Speaking at a closed meeting of the IAEA’s board on Monday, Mr. ElBaradei did not mention the United States by name. But his reference to claims that Saddam had a secret chemical, nuclear and biological weapons program - assertions that helped form the U.S. rationale for the invasion of Iraq - made it clear that his criticism was directed mostly at Washington.

“There are claims against Iraq, which proved to be bonkers, but only after a terrible war,” Mr. ElBaradei said after the U.S. and its allies questioned Syria’s right to his agency’s help in planning a power-producing atomic reactor.

“There is one thing called investigation, another called clear-cut proof of innocence or guilt … and all of you, even if you are not lawyers, know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

President Bush’s administration initially argued that Saddam had to be toppled to stop him from using weapons of mass destruction or from selling them to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But no such weapons were ever found. Mr. ElBaradei was among the chief skeptics questioning the claims.

A report circulated last week by Mr. ElBaradei confirmed that soil samples taken at the site of a building in Syria bombed last year by Israel revealed “a significant number” of uranium particles.

The report also said that satellite imagery and other information appeared to bear out U.S. intelligence that the building was a nuclear reactor - one Washington said was nearly completed and almost ready to produce plutonium, a fissile warhead component.

Syria denies hiding nuclear activities. But the report strengthened both concerns that it might have something to conceal and arguments from the U.S. and its allies that Damascus should not be offered agency help in planning its civilian reactor.

Beyond helping the Syrians develop expertise, the $350,000 aid project would send the wrong signal about a country under investigation by the IAEA, critics like the Americans argued.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it was “totally inappropriate, we believe, given the fact that Syria is under investigation by the IAEA for building a nuclear reactor outside the bounds of its international legal commitments.”

But Mr. ElBaradei disagreed, saying there was no legal basis to cancel or postpone the program.

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