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Iraqis Refurbish Tuwaitha Research Center - 2004-06-15

Iraq regains its sovereignty July 1, and in a little noticed development, Iraqi authorities have begun rebuilding facilities at the Tuwaitha research center once used by Saddam Hussein to pursue his regime's nuclear-weapons ambitions.

The reconstruction under way at Tuwaitha, despite its potential for generating controversy, is no secret. A spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority Joseph Pally confirms the rebuilding effort.

Joseph Pally tells VOA the effort involves what he describes as cleaning out, repairing, painting, and refurnishing office and laboratory buildings at the site, located just outside Baghdad.

The spokesman says the intention is to create space to house research and development efforts by Iraq's newly reconstituted Ministry of Science and Technology.

Mr. Pally says those research efforts will focus on agriculture, water, petrochemical and other projects. He makes no specific reference to nuclear research, the original function of the Tuwaitha center.

The cost of reconstruction has been estimated at about $30 million. The CPA spokesman says the authority is not financing the rebuilding. He says it is being paid for by the Development Fund for Iraq, established by the United Nations. The United States has been a major donor to the fund and it is managed by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

While it is unclear whether Iraqi scientists will be able to conduct nuclear research at Tuwaitha again, there has been radioactive contamination at the site and radioactive materials once stored there are missing.

According to Pentagon documents issued late last year and obtained by VOA, a team from the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine visited Tuwaitha in 2003. Experts on the team identified a total of 22 buildings and areas on the site with either radioactive sources or radiological contamination. These areas were marked with warning signs and tape.

The experts concluded the buildings and areas where radiation sources and contamination were found did not represent an immediate threat. But a separate handbook issued to coalition troops sent to patrol the Tuwaitha area urged soldiers not to enter buildings or areas marked with radiation caution signs.

Tuwaitha has been the storage facility for Iraqi nuclear material, most of it low-grade uranium. Safekeeping of that material had been monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before last year's war. But looting occurred after the U.S.-led invasion, before coalition forces secured the facility.

The IAEA later estimated that only about 10 kilograms of uranium compounds were missing, an amount the U.N. agency said is not sensitive.

But the looting prompted U.N. officials to press the United States for greater safeguards at Tuwaitha. Last July, U.S. defense sources told VOA preparations were under way to remove the uranium. But there was never confirmation the material had been shipped out of Iraq.

In recent days, a senior Pentagon official reaffirmed the Bush administration's intention to deal with the uranium. But the official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, declined to provide details.

Diplomatic sources have indicated the delay may be the result of a dispute between U.S. and Iraqi authorities.

In the meantime, there are continuing news reports of radioactive materials secretly leaving Iraq. A Jordanian newspaper reported in May that authorities at a border crossing point with Iraq halted a truck carrying radioactive materials. In another case, a Dutch newspaper reported in January a barrel of uranium oxide of Iraqi origin turned up at a Rotterdam scrap metal company.

U.S. officials have not responded to questions about security at Tuwaitha since last year's U.S. invasion.