- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2003

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces in Iraq have placed limits on a seven-member team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, confining it to a single nuclear-storage site south of Baghdad.

The team is to spend two weeks, beginning tomorrow, investigating pilferage at the Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, where thieves are believed to have stolen uranium and possibly radioactive isotopes used in hospitals, industry and research.

Pentagon officials said yesterday the IAEA visit is a one-time event to enforce the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not a weapons inspection that might set a precedent for future U.N. searches for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

U.S. troops and weapons experts will accompany the IAEA officials wherever they go, an arrangement the Pentagon officials said was for safety.

U.S. officials compiling an inventory of a looted Iraqi nuclear site found more radioactive material than had been catalogued in the past by the IAEA.

It’s not clear whether the discovery means U.S. information was wrong or the Iraqis had moved material to the Tuwaitha site before the war, said three top military and defense officials who briefed reporters in Washington on the condition of anonymity.

The Associated Press reported from Washington yesterday that U.S. officials had recovered more than 100 metal storage barrels thought to be stolen from the site.

Officials said none of the people who returned the barrels in exchange for a $3 reward showed elevated levels of radiation.

An official with the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA said the priority of the team would be to determine how much material is missing.

“They will then work to recapture as much as they can, repackage and reseal it, and secure the facility,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

Underscoring the tension of the visit, the IAEA official added that no findings would be released in Baghdad, and that all media inquiries would be referred to the agency’s Vienna headquarters.

More than 500 tons of natural uranium and 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium were stored at Al-Tuwaitha.

The facility also has radioactive isotopes such as cesium, cobalt and strontium.

The looting has raised the possibility that terrorist groups could have obtained material for a radiological “dirty bomb” from the site. None of the material at Al-Tuwaitha was of high enough quality to make a nuclear bomb.

The material in question was placed under protective IAEA seal in 1991, and has been undisturbed for the past 12 years.

IAEA experts are to verify the seals annually, as they did in February, just before the U.S.-led coalition bombing began.

This week’s visit grows out of Iraq’s signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, rather than the more aggressive inspections authorized by the U.N. Security Council late last year.

A separate team of medical experts sent by the Pentagon is to arrive in Baghdad next week to study people within a three-mile radius of the site.

Al-Tuwaitha had obviously been picked over by thieves. The fence and 12-foot concrete wall around the three storage buildings for radioactive material showed huge gaps and U.S. Marines found the main gate open when they arrived April 7.

Inside, some radioactive material had been scattered around. Radioactivity measurements inside the three buildings found levels two to 10 times above normal, a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said, joining the Pentagon news briefing via a satellite link.

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