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IAEA Seeks Return to Iraq to Update Files on Nuclear Activity - 2003-11-04

The International Atomic Energy Agency says it wants to return to Iraq to update its files on former leader Saddam Hussein's nuclear program and to monitor future nuclear activity under a new government. The U.N. nuclear watchdog also want access to information the United States has unearthed in Iraq.

Just about a year ago, IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq, after a four-year break, to hunt for banned nuclear weapons. They stayed just a few months and left on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. They did not find much.

While in Iraq, the IAEA team conducted hundreds of inspections and interviewed Iraqi scientists. Jacques Baute, a French nuclear physicist who once helped France build the nuclear bomb, led the Iraq action team and says the inspectors found no evidence of the resumption of a nuclear program.

After the war, an Iraqi scientist turned over to the U.S. authorities all documents and components related to centrifuge activity that he had buried in his garden in 1991. The centrifuge is a key component of a nuclear bomb-making process.

Mr. Baute said this information was hidden from the IAEA, not only by Saddam Hussein's regime but by the U.S.-led coalition which obtained it.

"We do not have all the details of what was provided to the coalition," he said. "So it is difficult for me to have a definitive assessment on that and we are pressing to get the details of whatever has been found by the coalition in order to be able to refine our assessment and draw conclusions."

But Mr. Baute does not believe the new information shows that Iraq was resuming its nuclear program.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog wants to send its inspectors back to Iraq to ensure that the country will not develop nuclear weapons. Mr. Baute said IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, is pressing for this at the United Nations.

"We hope that in the upcoming months there will be a positive resolution, both on the security side and on the political side," said Mr. Baute, "so that we can, as the boss [ElBaradei] says, finish the job that had been interrupted in mid-March."

The U.N. Security Council said in May it is considering whether international inspectors should return to Iraq, and the IAEA says it is still awaiting the results of that review.