May 13, 2003 Radiation poisoning feared from Iraq looting
By Inigo Gilmore
LONDON SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
BAGHDAD — Doctors fear that hundreds of Iraqis are suffering from radiation poisoning after widespread looting of the country's nuclear facilities.
Seven nuclear facilities have been damaged or effectively destroyed by ransackers since the end of the war last month. Technical documents, sensitive equipment and barrels containing radioactive material are thought to have been stolen.
Many residents in villages close to the huge Tuwaitha nuclear facility, about a dozen miles south of Baghdad, were exhibiting signs of radiation illness last week, including rashes, acute vomiting and severe nosebleeds.
As Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed last month, villagers began looting barrels of uranium oxide, known as "yellow cake," from the site, which they then emptied to use to store water, milk and yogurt.
In Al Riyadh village, about a mile from the site, 13-year-old El Tifat Nasser fell ill after her brothers visited the facility a dozen times and returned with barrels.
"She is bleeding twice a day through her nose, and she is very sick," said her mother, Sabieha Nasser, 48. "We are very worried."
Local hospitals have seen an influx of patients complaining of similar symptoms. "A lot of people seem to be affected," said one doctor. "It is deeply worrying."
Villagers said Iraqi officials arrived recently with Geiger counters. One said the men had measured areas where locals had emptied the contents of stolen barrels. "The Geiger counters were screaming," he said, adding that the officials had instructed the villagers to cover the areas in concrete.
The failure to secure the nuclear sites has fueled criticism of American forces in Iraq. It is known that at the Tuwaitha facility there were significant quantities of partially enriched uranium, cesium, strontium and cobalt.
Besides Tuwaitha and the adjacent Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, the Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility, the Baghdad New Nuclear Design Center and the Tahadi Nuclear Establishment have all been looted.
It is not yet clear what has been lost in the ransackings. There was unrestrained looting of chemical stores and scientific files that some experts believe could, in the wrong hands, allow the manufacture of a "dirty bomb." Many of the files, and some of the containers that held radioactive material, are missing.
All of the facilities have attracted close scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency and from U.S. experts who asserted that Iraq, despite IAEA inspections, was working to develop nuclear weapons. The warehouses at Ash Shaykhili have been destroyed by ransacking and fire, and the enrichment-processing equipment is either missing or burned.
Alarmed by the reports, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei sent a letter last week to reiterate earlier demands that the United States grant the agency access to Iraq's nuclear sites, but so far there has been no response.
Mohammed Zaidan, the former chief agricultural engineer at Tuwaitha, said he visited the plant with Hamid Al Bahli, a nuclear scientist, on April 7 when American troops were approaching from the south.
The soldiers, he said, assured the men they would secure Tuwaitha, but two weeks later they returned to find there were no Americans, only hundreds of people looting the facility and dogs rolling around in spilled uranium oxide.
"The soldiers had promised us they would secure the site but they did not and we wonder why," he said. "Perhaps it was because they always knew there were no real weapons there, despite all their claims. But, nevertheless, these materials represent a major health hazard, and before long we may start to see people developing cancer and deformed babies because they did not stop the looting."
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