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U.S. moving to secure Iraqi nuclear research center

Nausea, bleeding, rashes on rise after looters hit Tuwaitha nuclear site, raising health fears

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By John Hendren and Tyler Marshall, Los Angeles Times

RIYADH VILLAGE, Iraq -- Elifat Rusum Saber, 14, has been nauseous, tired and bleeding repeatedly from the nose since her brother brought home metal and chemical containers from the neighboring Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center two days after the fall of Baghdad.

Iraqi scientists line up outside the Baghdad Convention Center before meeting with American specialists yesterday to help conduct a damage assessment at Tuwaitha, Iraq's largest nuclear facility -- a site repeatedly plundered by looters. (Dafna Linzer, Associated Press)

"I used to take care of my family and my youngest sister," Elifat, her frail figure lost in a billowing flower-print dress, said through a translator this week. "Nowadays, I feel weak. I can't pick up a pot."

A few blocks away, through trash-strewn streets reeking from open sewers, Hassan Aouda Saffah is recovering from a rash that left white blotches on the dark skin of his right arm.

The marks appeared the same day he took a dusty generator from the nuclear site to restore some of the electricity the village lost during the war.

Dr. Jaafar Nasser Suhayb, who runs a nearby clinic, said he has treated abut 20 patients from the neighborhood near Tuwaitha over a five-day period for similar symptoms -- shortness of breath, nausea, severe nosebleeds and itchy rashes.

And Suhayb is worried that the residents may be suffering from radiation poisoning since several of the symptoms are consistent with those of acute radiation syndrome.

"All of the patients live near the nuclear site," Suhayb said. "Other cases maybe cannot reach the hospitals because of problems of security, postwar. In some cases maybe they are dead."

Navy Cmdr. David Beckett, right, conducts a contamination check on a colleague, identified only as Guy, after surveying highly radioactive medical and industrial wastes May 3 at the Baghdad Nuclear Research Facility near Tuwaitha. (Barton Gellman, The Washington Post via AP)

Since early April, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, has repeatedly requested that the U.S. secure nuclear material at Tuwaitha, and this week, the Bush administration has agreed to let the IAEA return to Iraq to inspect the site.

U.S. troops are now guarding the research center, but looting nonetheless has continued, and scientists are worried that missing nuclear material can result in a slew of safety and health problems.

"We're concerned about the health and safety of these people, and then we're also concerned about environmental contamination, and we're also concerned that this material could be used for illicit use -- a dirty bomb, or even a nuclear bomb," said IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky in a phone interview from Vienna.

The IAEA hopes to compare the stocks of radioactive materials and chemicals stored at the Tuwaitha facility to the inventories the agency last measured in January 2002.

The most recent tally by the IAEA, which has monitored the site since before the 1991 Gulf War, found 1.8 tons of low-grade enriched uranium and several tons of depleted uranium, which some scientists assert could be processed into weapons-grade material.

In expressing its concerns, the IAEA has cited reports that 20 percent of the radioactive materials are now gone. "Radiation is cumulative," Gwozdecky said. "It's been 40 days since the looting began. That's why we need to act."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that he had "no problem" with the IAEA inspecting Tuwaitha since "they probably have inventories of all of that and would be in a position to know what was there."

The Tuwaitha center, a complex of more than 100 buildings, is located just south of the Tigris River about 10 miles from central Baghdad. Built in the 1960s for Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission, it housed Saddam's secret effort to build a nuclear bomb.

A nuclear reactor complex at Tuwaitha was bombed by Israel in 1981, but uranium not yet enriched for nuclear weapons has remained stored there. Since the material was not weapons grade, it was not banned or removed under U.N. resolutions following the 1991 Gulf War, but it was checked regularly by IAEA in the years leading up to this year's war.

A U.S. Army armored vehicle guards the entrance to the dormant Tuwaitha plant yesterday. The Tuwaitha facility has been repeatedly trashed by scavengers and villagers who have freely entered the huge complex and tampered with its contents. (Ali Haider, Associated Press)

Once one of the highest security locations in Iraq, the main gates of Tuwaitha were stolen by looters shortly after Baghdad fell.

The entry guardposts are now windowless and vacant but for a family of squatters whose children bathe and cook with murky brown water they fear may be unsafe. Inside a 10-foot-high chain-link perimeter fence, a platoon of U.S. soldiers guards the remains of the nuclear reactor destroyed by the Israelis.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Gasman, from the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, says his job is to keep looters out, but with a platoon of just 40 men and a fence that runs as far as the eye can see, he admits it's a losing battle. Looters break through nightly and are often caught and then released after a few hours.

"There's no way we can catch them all," Gasman acknowledged. "For all I know, there are looters back there now."

Since the health problems began, some people have been returning stolen items to the nearby Al Hudaa mosque. A large green machine labeled "G24 Environmental Incubator Shaker" and other looted equipment are gathering dust in the courtyard.

Locals are afraid to enter a nearby village school, where equipment from the nuclear site is stored, saying the proliferation of dead flies proves it is lethal. Clerics at the mosque, which also functions as a kind of town hall, want government workers to come pick up the material. But Iraq has has had no government since the war ended, so they want the U.S. occupiers to take it.

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