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Iraq nuclear site not new, expert says

Friday, April 11, 2003

By William J. Kole, The Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria -- American troops who suggested they uncovered evidence of an active nuclear weapons program in Iraq unwittingly may have stumbled across known stocks of low-grade uranium, officials said yesterday. They said the U.S. troops may have broken U.N. seals meant to keep control of the radioactive material.

Leaders of a U.S. Marine Corps combat engineering unit claimed earlier this week to have found an underground network of laboratories, warehouses and bombproof offices beneath the closely monitored Tuwaitha nuclear research center just south of Baghdad.

The Marines said they discovered 14 buildings at the site which emitted unusually high levels of radiation, and that a search of one building revealed "many, many drums" containing highly radioactive material. If documented, such a discovery could bolster Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weaponry.

Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said officials there have not heard anything through military channels about a Marine inspection at Tuwaitha.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspected the Tuwaitha nuclear complex at least two dozen times and maintains a thick dossier on the site, had no immediate comment.

But an expert familiar with U.N. nuclear inspections told The Associated Press that it was implausible to believe that U.S. forces had uncovered anything new at the site. Instead, the official said, the Marines apparently broke U.N. seals designed to ensure the materials aren't diverted for weapons use -- or end up in the wrong hands.

Several tons of low-grade uranium has been stored at Tuwaitha, Iraq's principle nuclear research center and a site that has been under IAEA safeguards for years, the official said. The Iraqis were allowed to keep the material because it was unfit for weapons use without costly and time-consuming enrichment.

Tuwaitha contains 1.8 tons of low-grade enriched uranium and several tons of natural and depleted uranium.

The uranium was inspected by the U.N. nuclear agency twice a year and was kept under IAEA seal -- at least until early this week, when the Marines seized control of the site.

The U.N. nuclear agency's inspectors have visited Tuwaitha about two dozen times, including a dozen checks carried out since December, most recently on Feb. 6. It was among the first sites that IAEA inspectors sought out after the resumption of inspections on Nov. 27 after a nearly four-year break.

On at least one occasion, inspectors with special mountaineering training went underground there to have a look around, according to IAEA documents.

David Kay, a former IAEA chief nuclear inspector, said yesterday that the teams he oversaw after the 1991 Gulf War never found an underground site at Tuwaitha despite persistent rumors.

American intelligence analysts said before the U.S.-led campaign began that new structures photographed at Tuwaitha might indicate a revival of weapons work. IAEA inspectors checked but found nothing.

The Tuwaitha complex, run by the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission on a bend in the Tigris River about 18 miles south of Baghdad, was the heart of Saddam's former nuclear program and was involved in the final design of a nuclear bomb before Iraq's nuclear program was destroyed by U.N. teams after the 1991 Gulf War.

Also yesterday, a team of U.S. military experts hunting for chemical, biological and other unconventional weapons yesterday began examining a cache of sophisticated equipment that had been buried at an ammunition plant near Karbala, the New York Times reported.

The team, known as Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, traveled to the site yesterday morning after receiving a report that engineers from the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade had uncovered from mounds of dirt 11 trailer-like containers with the equipment, along with documents and manuals, inside.

One member of the team said it was difficult to tell what Iraq had intended to do with the equipment, which appeared to be new. The expert said the containers did not seem to be mobile laboratories. The Bush administration has accused Iraq of having mobile laboratories to make germ and chemical weapons.

The expert said, however, that much of the equipment could be used for multiple purposes, some peaceful, some not.

By day's end, the experts from the Defense Intelligence Agency had laid out some of the equipment that they said could be of particular use in biological and chemical work. Arrayed on the ground were such items as a water purifier, shakers for test tubes and vials, and a water bath that maintains constant temperature. Some of the equipment appeared to have come from other countries, including Switzerland, Germany, India, China and Britain.

The military experts said they were planning to work through much of the night, examining equipment and documents. They estimated that it would take at least two days to explore the material fully.

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