Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he now believes it would be a good idea for the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to Iraq to check on that country's nuclear sites.
One day after the director general of the United Nations nuclear agency voiced deep concern about the safety of Iraq's nuclear sites, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld suggested IAEA officials might be able to enter Iraq within a matter of days.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld indicated a final decision could hinge on current U.N. Security Council discussions on Iraq's immediate future.
But he said General Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has no problem with the return of IAEA inspectors.
Mr. Rumsfeld went on to say it could be beneficial. "What you have is a series of sites they are knowledgeable about, as I understand this, where they have sealed certain things. These are the known sites that have existed and they have put seals on certain things and the reason I think it might not be a bad idea for them to come in is that they probably have inventories of all that and would be in a position to know what was there or what they thought was there and where the seals were and what it looked like the last time they were there," he said,
In a statement Monday, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said he was deeply concerned by reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites in Iraq. He voiced particular concern over the security and safety implications of radiological materials that may no longer be under control.
Mr. ElBaradei noted that before the end of the war in Iraq, in early April, he wrote the U.S. government to urge American forces to secure nuclear material at Iraq's nuclear research center at Tuwaitha, material under IAEA seal since 1991 following the first Gulf war. He said he received verbal assurances the site was protected but following initial reports of looting he said he wrote U.S. authorities again in late April but received no reply.
The IAEA says materials at the Tuwaitha site include natural and low-enriched uranium and radioactive sources such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137.
Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged there has been some looting at Iraqi nuclear facilities but he said some missing items have been retrieved.
The defense secretary made no mention of the possible return of U.N. weapons inspectors other than those from the IAEA.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rumsfeld says conditions in Iraq are improving and life is "slowly beginning to return to what one might call the normal, pre-war standard."
He says there are difficulties, but that should come as a surprise to no one in a society making a transition from dictatorship to democracy.