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Dangerous Loot South of Baghdad

Iraqis close to a nuclear research site become ill after materials are pilfered. Doctor says symptoms point to acute radiation syndrome.

May 22, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH VILLAGE, Iraq — Elifat Rusum Saber, 14, has been nauseated, tired and bleeding from the nose since her brother brought home metal and chemicals from the neighboring Tuwaitha nuclear research center two days after the fall of Baghdad.

"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 an interpreter 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 rash 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 that over a five-day period he had treated about 20 patients from the neighborhood near Tuwaitha for similar symptoms -- shortness of breath, nausea, severe nosebleeds and itchy rashes.

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."

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

American troops are now guarding the research center, but the looting has continued, and scientists are worried that missing nuclear material could 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 telephone interview from Vienna.

The agency hopes to compare the stocks of radioactive materials and chemicals stored at Tuwaitha to an inventory it took in January 2002. The most recent tally by the IAEA, which has monitored the site since before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, found 1.8 tons of low-grade enriched uranium and several tons of depleted uranium, which some scientists say could be processed into weapons-grade material.

In expressing its concerns, the IAEA has cited reports that 20% 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 just south of the Tigris River, about 15 miles from central Baghdad.

Built in the 1960s for Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission, it housed Hussein'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 there. Since the material was not weapons-grade, it was not banned or removed under U.N. resolutions after the Gulf War, but it was checked regularly by the IAEA.

The main gates at Tuwaitha, once one of the highest-security locations in Iraq, were stolen by looters shortly after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops April 9.

The entry guard posts are now windowless and vacant but for a family of squatters whose children bathe in murky brown water.

Inside a 10-foot-high chain-link fence, a platoon of U.S. troops guards the remains of the nuclear reactor destroyed by the Israelis.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Gasman 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; they are often released within a few hours of being caught.

"There's no way we can catch them all," said Gasman, from the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. "For all I know, there are looters back there now."

Initially, thieves merely cut through the fence. Recently, they have stolen portions of the fence itself.

At first the looters took furniture, air conditioners and office equipment. Then they took what was left.

Elifat, for example, said her 16-year-old brother, Malik, arrived home one day with chemicals and pieces of metal. Most looters have been more interested in the containers on the site than in the radioactive material inside them, and they dumped the contents on the ground, residents said.

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