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UN nuclear experts back on Iraq mission

Baghdad, June 6 (Reuters): UN nuclear experts returned to Iraq today for the first time since the US-led invasion to check on looting at a research facility.

Brian Rens, leader of the seven-member International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team that flew in from Kuwait, said their mission was to verify nuclear material at the Tuwaitha site — not to look for any weapons of mass destruction.

“That is not our objective. It is to establish what materials have been removed from the site and what remains and to secure that material and to place it under seal, an agency seal,” he told reporters at the Rasheed hotel in Baghdad.

Rens said the team would visit the site at the sprawling Tuwaitha compound, Iraq’s main nuclear facility, 20 km southeast of Baghdad, tomorrow or on Sunday.

US forces say they have recovered about 100 barrels and five radiological devices possibly looted from the site. Some locals who unwittingly washed clothes or stored food in the barrels say children are falling ill.

Rens said he doubted there was a serious radiological problem at the site, a three-building storage facility. “The type of materials that are there are more of a contamination risk than a radiation risk,” he said.

“Obviously this material is not to be ingested or inhaled. It is toxic by nature, so there is a health risk.”

US army colonel Mickey Freeland, heading a military liaison team that will escort the IAEA mission, said the US-led civil administration had launched a separate effort to check for environmental and health damage in the area.

The IAEA team, operating under tight US restrictions, is barred from the rest of the Tuwaitha complex and will have no access to six other nuclear sites that may have been looted.

More than 500 tonnes of natural uranium and 1.8 tonnes of low-enriched uranium were stored at Tuwaitha, plus smaller amounts of highly radioactive caesium, cobalt and strontium.

The US wants to draw a clear line between the team’s mission and pre-war inspections carried out under UN Security Council resolutions on disarmament.

Council members, including Britain, have urged Washington to allow the return of UN nuclear and other arms inspectors withdrawn just before the war, but have made no headway.

US report

As the Bush administration was pushing last fall for a war against Iraq because of alleged weapons of mass destruction, a defence department report said it did not have enough “reliable information” Iraq was amassing chemical weapons, an official said today.

News of the classified September 2002 report by the defence intelligence agency has added to claims the White House and Pentagon slanted US intelligence on Baghdad’s weapons program to justify the war.

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