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IAEA to Safeguard, Track Nuclear Materials in Iraq - 2003-05-26

The International Atomic Energy Agency says it is sending a small team of inspectors to Iraq to check whether any nuclear material is missing, following media reports of looting.

The IAEA said it has concluded delicate negotiations with the United States and is preparing to send a small team to Iraq this week.

About six of its scientists are expected to arrive in Kuwait by Friday. According to the IAEA, their limited job will be to safeguard and verify nuclear material at the large Tuwaitha nuclear site, about 50 kilometers southeast of Baghdad.

Last week IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei expressed concern that if nuclear material is missing, it could result in a radiological emergency. Experts said there is a possibility that such stolen radioactive material could be used by terrorists to manufacture so-called dirty bombs.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said the agency has monitored the site during the past 12 years, and can recommend remedial action if necessary. "We certainly are the ones who have an international mandate to do these sorts of things, and in the absence of anyone else taking action, we have got this kind of expertise ready to go and our specialists can be deployed immediately," he said.

The visit concentrates on the Tuwaitha site and does not mean a full-scale resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq.

IAEA inspectors returned to Iraq last November, four years after they left amid accusations that Saddam Hussein's government was refusing to cooperate in a search for weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors left again just before the war began in March.

A U.N. source said the United States recognizes that the IAEA has a mandate for the whole of Iraq, but that safety arrangements for the inspectors are a priority.