Iraq: Mass poisoning feared
08/06/2003 08:13 - (SA)

Tuwaitha, Iraq - UN experts were to continue their first inspection of Iraq's largest nuclear plant on Sunday after expressing fears that thousands were poisoned when the site was looted in the wake of the war.

Near the town of Tikrit, meanwhile, a US soldier died and four were wounded in an attack.

That second deadly attack on US troops in three days came despite the new deployment of more than 1 000 US troops to flashpoint areas as coalition forces struggled to control growing unrest around Iraq since Saddam Hussein was ousted two months ago.

US Central Command said the soldiers were hit with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, bringing the death toll among US troops to 28 since the war was declared virtually ended on May 1, according to an AFP toll.

In London, the Sunday Times quoted a top Iraqi security official as saying Saddam Hussein's intelligence agencies ran a network of secret cells that carried out chemical and biological research but produced no weapons.

The paper said a general who procured supplies for the programme through an international network of front companies had told it that laboratories were hidden in basements in houses around Baghdad.

Mass demonstration

Meanwhile, in Basra some 2 000 Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims marched on Saturday to demand British forces pull out of Iraq's main southern city. Demonstrators handed officers a petition demanding they withdraw to the outskirts of the city.

Also on Saturday, the US-led administration warned Iraq's largest Shiite Muslim faction needed to disarm its formerly Iran-based military wing or face the consequences.

The administration welcomed promises made by leaders of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sairi) that its militiamen would lay down their arms but had yet to see them being honoured on the ground.

"If they don't disarm and they violate the weapons policy, they know what the consequences will be," a spokesperson said.

Outside Baghdad, UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors launched their two-week assessment of whether refined uranium ore had been looted from the Tuwaitha plant.

Residents near the plant in Tuwaitha told AFP that looters had emptied out barrels of unknown chemicals and then resold the barrels to unsuspecting people who used them to store water and food, and later washed them in the Tigris river.

The result may have left entire villages and towns contaminated with radiation.

The inspectors are so far the only ones allowed back into the country since the world body pulled its arms monitors out shortly before the war began.

Although the IAEA team was not expected to join the hunt for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, Bremer told reporters on Saturday that he would seek to meet with them in the coming days.

"I might have something to say at that time," he said, when asked whether the experts would play a part in the search for weapons.

The nuclear experts arrived on Friday after chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix publicly questioned the credibility of the coalition experts charged with searching out Iraq's alleged banned weapons arsenal.


Blix pressed the UN Security Council on Thursday to allow his inspectors back into Iraq to restart searches, saying "anybody who functions under an army of occupation cannot have the same credibility as an independent inspector".

On Friday, he told the BBC he had been disappointed by US and British intelligence his team received in the weeks before the war.

"I thought, 'My God, if this is the best intelligence they have and we find nothing, what about the rest?'," he said.

Controversy has been raging over whether the United States and Britain fudged the data to back up their claims about Iraq's alleged arsenal, the main reason cited for the war.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Saturday denied that his government had manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.

"There was no doctoring of intelligence advice by the government I lead," Howard told the Liberal party national convention in Adelaide, adding that he remained confident banned weapons would be found.

In Baghdad, the coalition said on Saturday that it had agreed to amend its plans for an interim Iraqi administration but rejected demands for it to be elected to avoid it being seen as a puppet government.

Coalition advisors

In talks with Iraqi delegates on Friday, Bremer agreed that the caretaker body would immediately appoint "interim ministers" rather than mere "advisors", a spokesperson said.

He also accepted calls for it to be allowed to appoint diplomats overseas to represent Iraq in regional or international bodies, although he added that their powers would be limited.

"Obviously they would have to have coalition advisors sitting alongside them," the spokesperson told reporters.

Under its interpretation of Resolution 1483 passed by the UN Security Council last month, the coalition will retain ultimate authority until a sovereign government has been installed following a constitutional referendum and nationwide elections, a process that may take as long as two years.

A seven-strong leadership council of Iraqi politicians that spearheaded the resistance to Saddam Hussein has expressed growing frustration that the interim administration is to have little power.

Mass grave

Friday's talks were the first between council members and Bremer since he abandoned a promised national conference which had been due to name the new administration's members in favour of informal US-led consultations.

Meanwhile, as part of its campaign to root out Saddam loyalists from Iraqi public life, coalition forces announced they had arrested Iraq's former deputy head of police on suspicion of corruption, intimidation and trying to reorganise the Ba'ath party.

General Mohammad Habib al-Mashadani had persisted in "trying to undermine coalition efforts to reform the police", despite being kicked out of his job because of his senior position in Saddam's regime, a spokesperson said.

Residents of the town of Madaen, near Baghdad, said a mass grave containing the remains of prisoners executed in the final days of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein had been found nearby.

At least four bodies, three in prison uniforms, were exhumed from of the grave near Madaen, some 30km outside Baghdad, on Saturday to be buried elsewhere, they said. - Sapa-AFP