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U.N. Experts to Inspect Nuclear Site in Iraq

The White House opens door to investigators after sharp warnings from a watchdog agency.

May 21, 2003|John J. Goldman and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — The Bush administration has agreed to allow United Nations experts to return to Iraq to inspect its leading nuclear research center, Pentagon and State Department officials said Tuesday.

The decision follows several sharp warnings from the International Atomic Energy Agency that theft and destruction at nuclear sites could spread contamination or allow radioactive material to fall into the hands of extremist groups outside the country.

The immediate concern is the Tuwaitha nuclear research center outside Baghdad, the only center where U.N. inspectors will be allowed for now, U.S. officials said.

A senior administration official emphasized the step was not part of the resolution to lift U.N. sanctions against Iraq being pushed for a vote this week in the Security Council, but would "help us get the resolution."

Diplomats from the United States and Britain are confident a majority of the council's 15 members will support the resolution to lift sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But after more than three hours of closed-door negotiations Tuesday, U.S. officials said more discussions would be needed before a vote would take place and predicted that vote would occur on Thursday.

The return of the nuclear experts to Tuwaitha would be separate from any resumption of U.N. inspections for weapons of mass destruction, which were halted prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

As it now stands, the U.S. resolution before the Security Council reaffirms the importance of disarming Iraq but does not address the question of when or if U.N. inspectors would return to the country.

The IAEA, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, has been scrutinizing Iraq's nuclear sites since well before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials say they are concerned about IAEA reports that claim Iraq's nuclear sites have been looted, with uranium being emptied from containers and radioactive sources removed from their shielding and stolen.

"We have no problem with [temporary IAEA involvement]," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday. "The reason I think it might not be a bad idea for them to come in is that they probably have inventories of all of that and would be in a position to know what was there. We do know there's been some looting in some of those sites."

U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, after closed-door consultations among council members, said he expected a vote on the lifting of sanctions to take place "in all likelihood" on Thursday morning.

"I think there is strong support for this resolution. It is quite long. It has 25 operative paragraphs. A lot of them are rather legal and technical in nature, and some questions have arisen that just require just a little bit more work, and that's what we are going to do now," the U.S. ambassador said.

"I believe the atmosphere remains constructive," said Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's U.N. ambassador. "There is wide acknowledgment that we have made a number of concessions already ... that have been received positively."

For more than a month, the Bush administration has called on the U.N. to lift the sanctions, saying the move is necessary so a new government can be eventually formed in Iraq and oil can flow again.

The U.S. and Britain, as occupying powers, want to retain authority over reconstruction efforts, oil revenue and other matters central to Iraq's future. But some U.N. members, including those who opposed the war, have been hesitant to lift sanctions without a stronger role for the U.N. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made calls to Russia, France, Germany, Pakistan, Spain and other key Security Council members to urge support of the latest U.S. draft.

"The gist of what the secretary's telling members is that we have made changes that go in the direction of many of the issues that these various members had raised. We have a good resolution now that could form the basis of consensus or broad support within the council," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

To address demands for a stronger U.N. role, changes include naming a U.N. special representative rather than a less powerful coordinator mentioned in an earlier draft. New language also calls for a collaborative U.N. role in Iraq's political transition. It pledges an eventual role in Iraq for U.N. weapons inspectors, which Washington has rejected, would be addressed.

The compromise also allows a six-month time frame to phase out the U.N. "oil-for-food" program, which has channeled all Iraqi oil revenue through the U.N. to pay for imports restricted to humanitarian items.

The draft resolution continues to make clear that the U.S. and Britain have broad powers to decide how to spend Iraq's oil revenues, and as the occupying powers, guide the process designed to help the Iraqi people form a representative government that will be recognized internationally.

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