VIENNA, Apr 10, 2003 (ODJ Select via COMTEX) -- (AP)--U.S. troops who suggested they uncovered evidence of an active nuclear weapons program in Iraq unwittingly may have stumbled across known stocks of low-grade uranium and illegally broken U.N. seals, officials said Thursday.
Leaders of a U.S. Marine Corps combat engineering unit claimed earlier this week to have found an underground network of laboratories, warehouses and bombproof offices beneath the closely monitored Tuwaitha nuclear research center just south of Baghdad.
The Marines said they discovered 14 buildings at the site which emitted unusually high levels of radiation, and that a search of one building revealed "many, many drums" containing highly radioactive material. If documented, such a discovery could bolster Bush administration claims that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weaponry.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspected the Tuwaitha nuclear complex at least two dozen times and maintains a thick dossier on the site, had no immediate comment.
But an expert familiar with U.N. nuclear inspections told The Associated Press that it was implausible to believe that U.S. forces had uncovered anything new at the site. Instead, the official said, the Marines apparently broke U.N. seals designed to ensure the materials aren't diverted for weapons use - or end up in the wrong hands.
"What happened apparently was that they broke IAEA seals, which is very unfortunate because those seals are integral to ensuring that nuclear material doesn't get diverted," the expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several tons of low-grade uranium has been stored at Tuwaitha, Iraq's principle nuclear research center and a site that has been under IAEA safeguards for years, the official said. The Iraqis were allowed to keep the material because it was unfit for weapons use without costly and time-consuming enrichment.
The uranium was inspected by the U.N. nuclear agency twice a year and was kept under IAEA seal - at least until early this week, when the Marines seized control of the site.
"It's hard to believe that the U.S. military would not be well aware of this site - it's the center of Iraq's nuclear research activities," the expert told AP. "Just as you wouldn't be surprised to find hamburgers at McDonald's, no one should be surprised to find nuclear materials at this site."
The U.N. nuclear agency's inspectors have visited Tuwaitha about two dozen times, including sending inspectors with special mountaineering training who went underground, according to IAEA documents.
"Inspectors have been in Tuwaitha since 1991, and they've inspected it 12 times in the last four months," the expert said. "It's the single most inspected, understood site that the IAEA has in Iraq. They've been up and down and in and out of Tuwaitha. No site is more well-known to us."
"At a minimum, the commanders apparently weren't provided with warnings that when you come to a certain site, you should expect X, Y and Z," the official added.
The Tuwaitha complex, on a bend in the Tigris River about 30 kilometers south of Baghdad, has been a consistent focus of U.N. inspection efforts that resumed in November after a nearly four-year break.
The IAEA, charged with the hunt for evidence of a nuclear program in Iraq, told the Security Council just before the war that it had uncovered no firm evidence that Saddam was renewing efforts to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, clearly wary of any coalition claims, said this week that any alleged discoveries of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would have to be verified by U.N. inspectors "to generate the required credibility."
ElBaradei said the inspectors should return as soon as possible, subject to Security Council guidance, to resume their search for banned arms.