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US Troops Prepare to Escort UN Inspectors to Iraqi Nuclear Site - 2003-06-05

U.S. troops in Iraq are preparing to escort a group of inspectors from the U.N. nuclear agency to Iraq's main nuclear research center at Tuwaitha, outside Baghdad.

U.S. defense officials say the inspection by a seven-person team from the International Atomic Energy Agency will get under way within a matter of days, and is expected to last about two weeks.

The officials, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on condition of anonymity, say the so-called safeguards inspection will include an inventory and an assessment of the condition of some 500 metric tons of uranium "yellowcake" ore, previously stored under U.N. seal at Tuwaitha.

U.S. officials say the last U.N. inspection of the site was carried out in December of last year. But because of the war and reports of looting, U.N. experts have been demanding renewed access to Tuwaitha.

Defense officials say that, until now, insecurity has prevented such a visit by U.N. inspectors. But they say coalition forces are now prepared to provide transportation and other logistical support, as well as security for the team.

They say coalition forces will accompany IAEA personnel at all times.

The Pentagon says Iraqi troops abandoned the Tuwaitha nuclear site in mid March, followed soon thereafter by Iraqi civilian guards.

U.S. troops did not arrive there to secure the facility until April 7.

Defense officials say the site was found to be in disarray, with gates open and walls breached, and some uranium ore scattered about. They say they cannot confirm whether any nuclear materials were looted.

But as a protective measure, they say, troops who heard some barrels used to hold uranium ore were removed, went to nearby villages and offered to pay $3 for any barrels or other items from Tuwaitha. Defense officials say the troops recovered over 100 barrels of various sizes, shapes and conditions, even though they could not be sure they were actually removed from the nuclear site.

The officials say troops detected no unusual radioactivity in the villages.