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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqis Poisoned by Nuclear Site's Looted Items

TUWAITHA, Iraq -- For Iptisam Nuri, a mother of five who was sick with typhoid, the arrival of the barrels in her home at first seemed a godsend.

When the electricity went out during the war, the water-pumping station that serves this area 50 kilometers southeast of Baghdad shut down, and people were thirsty. Then men from a village near here broke through the fence guarding "Location C" at Saddam Hussein's nuclear complex. "We had to find something to bring water," said one of the men, Idris Saddoun, 23.

They said they broke into the warehouse, emptied hundreds of barrels of their yellow and brown mud, took them to the wells and canals and filled them with water for cooking, bathing and drinking. For nearly three weeks, hundreds of villagers who live near this Iraqi nuclear site bathed in and ingested water laced with radioactive contaminants from the barrels.

The barrels, Iraqi and foreign experts say, had held uranium ores, low-enriched uranium yellowcake, nuclear sludge and other byproducts of Hussein's nuclear research.

Some villagers fell ill with nausea. Others developed itchy rashes. Although no qualified medical experts have examined them, some contracted ailments that they now attribute to radioactive contamination. It may take years to determine the health effects from the radiation poisoning that occurred here before U.S. military forces arrived to seal off this nuclear complex.

Questions have been raised by international inspectors about why, despite Washington's assurances that allied forces had secured this facility, an army of looters roamed here freely for days, ransacking vaults and warehouses that contained ample radioactive poisons that could be used to manufacture an inestimable quantity of dirty bombs.

Tuwaitha has been the most conspicuous element of Iraq's nuclear research program since its inception in the 1970s. Twenty-two years ago, Israeli warplanes bombed its main plutonium production reactor after Menachem Begin, then Israel's prime minister, became convinced that Hussein was determined to produce nuclear weapons.

On Saturday, the first inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency arrived to look into the loss of control over Iraq's nuclear program that occurred when allied forces bypassed this complex on their drive on Baghdad.

Under restrictions imposed by the U.S. and British occupation authority, the inspectors will not be allowed to survey the levels of contamination in villages like this one, where survival instincts drove the residents into a compound where radiological dangers awaited them.

"We have been disturbed about reports of looting and that these barrels that contained natural and low-enriched uranium have been looted," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the atomic agency in Vienna, told the BBC. "We are going to find out what's missing, to see if we can repackage and secure the material, so that we can account for every gram of it." Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the atomic agency, first expressed concern about security at Tuwaitha on April 10, the day after Baghdad fell and widespread looting began.

This week, senior U.S. defense officials said that when United States marines reached the Tuwaitha complex, on April 7, they found that looting was rampant. Since then, they said, military forces have provided security. Army officials who checked the site soon after the marines arrived encountered high radiation in the storage buildings and left.

Ever since, atomic agency officials have pressed for access to the site, and U.S. officials have resisted, arguing that the mandate of the agency in Iraq had expired and allied forces were in charge.

Yet continuing reports of lax security and the discovery that villagers were bathing in contaminated barrels appear to have prompted U.S. officials to relent and allow narrowly defined access for international inspectors.

A team of agency inspectors arrived in the Iraqi capital on Friday. Instead of billeting in their old headquarters at the Canal Hotel, they were closeted behind U.S. military guards at the Rashid Hotel, which is off limits to visitors.

When the inspectors arrived here Saturday, they were escorted by a small column of U.S. troops in Humvees.

They apparently went straight to "Location C," the warehouse compound on the southern boundary of the nuclear complex where uranium ores, yellowcake and low-level waste were stored.

U.S. troops at the complex would not allow reporters to accompany inspectors.

Local villagers said what they were sure to find were piles of uranium dumped from barrels on the floor of the warehouse, where looters tracked the radioactive material back to their homes, adding to contamination that came from using the barrels as water containers.

More than 500 tons of natural uranium and 1.8 tons of low-enriched uranium were stored at Tuwaitha, international inspectors have said.