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Saturday, 26 January, 2002, 04:14 GMT
Nuclear watchdog checks Iraq site
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and advisors
Saddam has been warned to comply with UN inspections
By the BBC's Caroline Hawley

A team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is in Iraq on a four-day mission to inspect nuclear materials at a former research centre on the outskirts of Baghdad.

But the IAEA has made clear it is only a "limited" mission which will not be able to determine whether Iraq may be engaged in a secret nuclear weapons programme.


We cannot provide assurances that Iraq is not pursuing a new secret nuclear programme

Melissa Fleming
IAEA spokeswoman
The new inspections come as the United States is urging Iraq to comply fully with UN resolutions meant to ensure the country is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Last week, US President George Bush warned Saddam Hussein that he would "deal with him at the appropriate time" unless the Iraqi leader allowed UN weapons inspectors back.

Iraq has insisted it has nothing to hide over weapons of mass destruction.

"How is it possible to possess the means to develop such weapons under siege and surveillance for more than 11 years?" the al-Thawra daily, mouthpiece of the ruling Baath party, asked recently.

No checks

But concern has arisen because there has been no real surveillance.

Iraq has refused to let the inspectors into the country since they were withdrawn in 1998.

It has allowed the IAEA inspectors back - but with only limited freedom of manoeuvre.

The seven IAEA inspectors will work at a former nuclear research centre at Tuwaitha, north of Baghdad, where 1.8 tonnes of "low-enriched uranium" - which is not of weapons-quality - are being stored.

UN weapons inspectors leave Baghdad in 1998
The UN says it is ready to resume inspections
In the early 1990s, the IAEA removed 22.4 kilograms of highly-enriched, weapons-grade uranium from Iraq.

The agency says it was convinced that the "intrusive" inspections it was able to carry out until 1998 had uncovered all the weapons-grade uranium Iraq had at the time.

The Vienna-based organisation also destroyed several "sophisticated facilities" where uranium can be enriched to make it "weapons-useable".

But for the past four years the IAEA says it has been able to verify only that the uranium at Tuwaitha is under lock and key, no more.

"We are not able to go beyond looking at this material and ensuring it remains under the IAEA seal," said Melissa Fleming, its spokeswoman.

"We cannot provide assurances that Iraq is not pursuing a new secret nuclear programme."

Compromise

She adds: "At the time of the Gulf war, they were very close, possibly only one or two years away from having a nuclear bomb. Now, we have no way of knowing what they're doing.

"Defectors come out and claim that Iraq is working on a secret programme. What we need to do is to go anywhere at any time and at no notice to be able to carry out our work." But Ms Fleming says Iraq has made clear it will not allow full-scale IAEA inspections unless UN sanctions on Iraq are lifted.

And that's the crux of the current stand-off between Iraq and the United States.

Iraq woman carrying a sack of wheat
Sanctions cause hardship for many Iraqis
Iraq is convinced that even if it co-operates with the UN weapons inspectors, the Americans will never allow sanctions to be lifted while Saddam Hussein remains in power.

"For seven and a half years, UN inspectors controlled and destroyed as much as they wanted," Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, said on Thursday.

But there are indications that Iraq, faced with possible American-led military action, may now be seeking some form of compromise.

The Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa - who met Saddam Hussein last week - said the Iraqi leader had a "very important" initiative" for both the United Nations and Arab states. So far, he has revealed no details.

The UN currently has 180 inspectors trained in preparation to resume its weapons monitoring, if and when Iraq gives the green light.

"We're preparing all the time," says Ewen Buchanan, spokesman of Unmovic, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, the successor to Unscom.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Hawton
"The inspectors will examine a nuclear plant, north of the capital"
See also:

20 Jan 02 | Middle East
Saddam moves on diplomatic front
17 Jan 02 | Americas
Bush warns Iraq over arms
29 Nov 01 | Middle East
UN votes to overhaul Iraq sanctions
29 Nov 01 | Middle East
Iraq seeks to deflect US pressure
29 Nov 01 | Middle East
Mid-East warns US on Iraq
26 Jun 01 | Middle East
Russia resists new Iraq sanctions
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