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Weapons inspectors dismiss claims Saddam tried to buy uranium

WASHINGTON—The two top U.N. weapons inspectors Friday dealt a blow to U.S. efforts to get support for its war plans, saying that Western intelligence cooperation has been incomplete and in one case even bogus.

The criticism was unexpected and would likely complicate efforts to sway undecided Security Council members to back a new U.N. resolution that could lead to war.

The chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the U.N. Security Council that his inspectors had found no evidence to back up a series of U.S. and British claims that were intended to bolster their case for toppling Saddam Hussein.

"We have to date found no evidence or plausible indications of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq," ElBaradei, a former Egyptian diplomat, told the Council.

Hans Blix, the Swedish chief of the 200 or so U.N. weapons inspectors scouring Iraq, also took a slight dig at the data given to his team by Western intelligence agencies. He said he needs to increase the size of his staff in Iraq but noted that better intelligence is more critical than beefing up his teams of inspectors.

"I would rather have twice the amount of high-quality information about sites to inspect than twice the number of expert inspectors to send," Blix said.

ElBaradei, head of the Vienna-based international agency, a U.N. body, said his teams had conducted 218 inspections at 141 sites in Iraq and had determined that stockpiles of suspicious items—including high-strength aluminum tubes and high-power magnets—were unsuitable for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium and make weapons-grade nuclear material.

ElBaradei was dismissive of charges that Iraq was shopping for uranium in Africa. Both Britain and the United States have wielded the allegations that Iraq was shopping the globe for uranium to support their case for toppling Saddam.

"These specific allegations are unfounded," ElBaradei told the Security Council.

ElBaradei said his agency had conducted a thorough analysis of documents it had received suggesting that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Niger. The documents, he said, turned out to be "in fact not authentic."

A White House spokesman said the report was only one of many reports about Iraq's efforts to obtain materials used to make nuclear weapons. The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United Nations was continuing to investigate illegal weapons imports by Iraq.

Without naming the countries that offered the documents, ElBaradei said his agency had examined paperwork provided "by a number of states" suggesting that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger and that the two nations had a signed agreement between 1999 and 2001.

The U.N. agency gathered documents from various institutions in Niger "to compare the form, format, contents and signature of that correspondence with those of the alleged procurement-related documenting," ElBaradei said.

To ensure the accuracy of their analysis, the U.N. nuclear agency brought in outside experts, he said.

ElBaradei, describing the documents as "the basis for reports of recent uranium transaction between Iraq and Niger," said it was determined that the papers were fake.

Iraq and Niger, a landlocked sub-Saharan nation that relies on uranium mining as virtually its only industry, denied that they had struck a deal.

Starting last September, U.S. and British officials have charged in documents that the Iraqi regime is shopping for uranium around the globe, particularly in Africa, with the goal of obtaining enough nuclear material to make nuclear weapons.

A British report released Sept. 24 by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government said Iraq, in defiance of U.N. resolutions, had revived a program to enrich uranium.

"There is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the British report said.

At about the same time, the White House offered a 21-page report on the Iraqi regime's deception with the United Nations, saying that Iraq "has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb."

CIA Director George Tenet, without specifying where Iraq was seeking uranium, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 11 that Iraq is rebuilding an active nuclear program.

"Iraq has established a pattern of clandestine procurements designed to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program," Tenet told legislators, adding that global purchases "go well beyond" attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuges needed to enrich uranium.

ElBaradei said it was "highly unlikely" that Iraq could employ the aluminum tubes it purchased for use in a revived centrifuge program.

Agency inspectors "failed to uncover any evidence that Iraq intended to use these 81 mm tubes for any project other than the reverse engineering of rockets," he said.

A series of high-strength magnets that Baghdad has obtained—and said are for use in industrial machinery, missile guidance systems and electricity meters—are unsuitable for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium, he said.

Iraq's nuclear ambitions date back decades. In 1981, Israeli jetfighters bombed the French-built Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, fearful that it would provide nuclear material for a bomb.

After the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspectors determined that Iraq had made headway in developing nuclear material and designing weapons systems to carry nuclear bombs.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.