U.N. nuclear agency inspection team takes first look at Iraq’s main plant

? Representatives of the U.N. nuclear agency got a firsthand look Saturday at the postwar damage to Iraq’s main nuclear facility, peering through broken windows and roaming the grounds to assess the extent of looting and disarray.

The visit to the Tuwaitha nuclear plant was conducted under close watch by American officials, as is the entire mission by the International Atomic Energy Agency — which aims to determine how much damage was done to the plant during the war and what went missing.

For three hours under a blazing afternoon sun, the U.N. team, accompanied by American weapons hunters, toured the grounds and looked into rooms where tons of uranium and radioactive sources had been safely stored for more than a decade.

Tuwaitha, Iraq’s largest nuclear facility and now defunct, was left unguarded for two weeks after Iraqi troops fled the area on the eve of the war.

U.S. troops didn’t secure the area until April 7. In the meantime, looters from the surrounding villages stripped it of uranium storage barrels they later used to hold drinking water. Villagers said the looting continued when the Marines handed over control to another unit in mid-April.

In preparation for the IAEA return, the U.S. military ordered villagers to sell back the barrels for $3 each. The Pentagon said they had retrieved 100 barrels so far. Some 3,000 barrels of low-grade uranium were stored at Tuwaitha, and even while the IAEA was inside the sprawling complex Saturday, Iraqi workers wearing white suits and breathing masks dropped off more of the blue barrels.

A U.S. weapons team created to dismantle and eliminate any nuclear weapons found in Iraq has already conducted its own assessment of the site.

Col. Mickey Freeland, who heads that team, refused to say how much uranium they believe is now missing. “I’m not going to state what we did or didn’t find,” he told The Associated Press before heading out to the site with the IAEA team.

Another American colonel, Tim Madere, said some 20 percent of Tuwaitha’s uranium was unaccounted for.

Freeland’s team is accompanying the small group of seven IAEA members wherever it goes, and the military has placed the U.N. experts in a Baghdad hotel it is running. It wasn’t clear Saturday if the U.N. experts — who arrived in the Iraqi capital the day before — would even be allowed to leave the hotel after work hours without troop escort, military sources and IAEA members said privately,