Friday, October 7, 2005

From combined dispatches

VIENNA, Austria — Mohamed ElBaradei and his International Atomic Energy Agency won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, a vote of approval for the chief U.N. nuclear inspector in a job he nearly lost because of tensions with the Bush administration over Iran and Iraq.

Mr. ElBaradei suggested winning the world’s most prestigious award vindicated his methods and goals — using diplomacy rather than confrontation and defusing tensions in multilateral negotiations that strive for consensus.

He also suggested the conflict with Washington was over, saying Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “wished me well” in a congratulatory phone call.

In Washington, Miss Rice said she had called Mr. ElBaradei and that the Bush administration was “committed to working with the IAEA to prevent the spread of nuclear-weapons technology” and she extended congratulations to Mr. ElBaradei.

Mr. ElBaradei and the IAEA locked horns with Washington in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war by challenging U.S. claims that since-ousted dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. ElBaradei’s refusal to back U.S. assertions that Iran has a covert nuclear-weapons program hardened opposition to him within the Bush administration.

Anger among such officials as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton, at the time undersecretary of state for arms control, was strong and unusually public.

Before the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, Bush campaign officials accused IAEA officials of attempting to influence the outcome by leaking a story that U.S. forces in Iraq had ignored agency warnings to secure a nuclear site that was later looted.

Some even hinted that Mr. ElBaradei himself was responsible for what became a major news story days before U.S. voters went to the polls.

A month after the election, the administration called on Mr. ElBaradei to step down after his term ended this summer.

But the administration was unable to convince other members of the IAEA to oust Mr. ElBaradei, and in June, it agreed to support his re-election to a third term.

Yesterday’s endorsement by the Nobel Committee was viewed by some as a major boost to the Egyptian diplomat and by others as a continuation of a Nobel committee practice of using the award to criticize the United States.

After the award was announced, Mr. ElBaradei refrained from criticizing the United States in comments to Associated Press Television News and two other media outlets.

“I don’t see it as a critique of the U.S.” he said yesterday. “We had disagreement before the Iraq war, honest disagreement. We could have been wrong; they could have been right.”

Instead, Mr. ElBaradei said, the honor was “a message — ‘Hey, guys, you need to get your act together; you need to work together in multinational institutions.’”

The award also was a signal “going to the Arab world, going to the Western world that we … have a lot in common and we need to work together to survive,” Mr. ElBaradei said.

Describing his phone conversation with Miss Rice, he said that they both “agreed that we will have to continue to work together” on issues, including dispelling suspicions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and getting North Korea to return to the nonproliferation fold.

“The award sends a very strong message: ‘Keep doing what you are doing,’” he said.

The Nobel committee recognized Mr. ElBaradei and the U.N. nuclear agency “for 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.”

The committee has repeatedly awarded its peace prize to anti-nuclear weapons campaigners on the major anniversaries of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Mr. ElBaradei’s agency has been pivotal in nearly three years of investigations into Iran’s suspect nuclear activities, including programs that can be used for making weapons.

Last month, the IAEA board put Iran on notice that it faces referral to the U.N. Security Council unless it dispels international concerns about it nuclear aims — despite Mr. ElBaradei’s preference for a less-confrontational approach.

French President Jacques Chirac called the prize “an encouragement to actively pursue, with the IAEA, efforts toward a lasting political settlement of the crisis of confidence created by [Iran’s] clandestine activities.”

The agency has had no control over North Korea since the country quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, but Mr. ElBaradei has said he hopes to have his inspectors back in the country, the “sooner the better” in the wake of the North’s announcement that it wants to end its atomic-weapons program.

In Iraq, IAEA inspectors searched for evidence of a nuclear-weapons program in the months ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion, but failed to find concrete evidence to back U.S. assertions Saddam’s regime had such a program.

The Nobel committee received a record 199 nominations for the peace prize, which includes $1.3 million, a gold medal and a diploma. Mr. ElBaradei and the IAEA will share the award when they receive it Dec. 10 in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

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