In the wreckage of Saddam's nuclear research centre, villagers take their pick of lethal spoils

By Donald Macintyre in Tuwaitha

10 May 2003

The Independent

The labels were clearly visible when the caretaker of the al-Wrdiya village school pulled from a storeroom at the back of the building two looted plastic drums and a translucent off-white crate.

No, he said rather sheepishly, he hadn't shown them to the Iraqi and US experts who visited earlier in the day. One of the blue drums, both of which were stamped "Made in West Germany", carried on its side the words "Radio Aktiv". On the crate, resembling a large toolbox, underneath the designation "Hardigg Ind, USA", was the word again, this time in English, "Radioactive". Another, much smaller, white label warned in English "Observe Prescribed Separation Distances for Film and Personnel." None of the labels was in Arabic.

It was the clearest evidence yet that potentially deadly materials had been among the loot taken from the Tuwaitha nuclear research plant, where inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had supervised the storage in a locked and guarded facility of tons of partly enriched uranium and natural and depleted uranium, metals that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The Tuwaitha complex is also the site of the Osirak reactor bombed by the Israelis in 1981.

Told about the drums, a senior IAEA official said yesterday: "Our concerns about this site grow every day." The IAEA has been desperate to visit the site and has warned the US since 11 April to take action to stop looting. It is concerned about radiation and also fears the material could fall into the hands of those seeking to create makeshift nuclear weapons. But Washington has consistently refused to allow the IAEA inspectors in.

It was well known that Iraqi civilians had stripped much of the Tuwaitha plant – and indeed were still stripping it this week – first of computers, furniture, refrigerators, and then of timber and sheets of metal. What wasn't known was whether anything more sinister had been taken from the compound and its nuclear storage facility. The drums, which had been brought in with their lids on, made clear that it had.

The drums had been found, probably discarded by looters who belatedly realised the dangers of what they were carrying, and taken into the Omar al-Mukthar school by an 11-year-old pupil, Hanan Nabil. Hanan said he had been given a medical check by the experts who had visited the school earlier in the day. It was demanded by his father who found out he had handled the drums.

The caretaker, Mohasin Hanja, 42, said he had washed out the empty containers with water, first pouring away the residue of yellow liquid that had been in one of the barrels. Yesterday a senior IAEA official said this was likely to be a residue of "yellow cake", the basic concentrated form of uranium oxide, from which uranium products are refined in the nuclear industry.

These villagers, at least, are about as far removed from terrorists looking for the material for dirty bombs as it is possible to be. Indeed they had been recklessly uninterested in the contents of the vessels, simply pouring out whatever liquid was left in them. It was the containers themselves they wanted, to keep or sell, for storage. Mr Hanja said, pointing to one old barrel in his storeroom: "That was all we had before. I thought we would use these to keep oil in." Other villages have reportedly used them to store drinking water.

Less than a mile away, Muhanad Karam, 27, told of what he now recognised was his "very big mistake" in looting several of the blue drums from Tuwaitha three weeks ago. Most were similar to the ones at Omar al-Mukhtar school, but one especially concerned the US/Iraqi scientific team which, he said, had now visited him twice. It was made of metal and was marked with a skull and crossbones.

He confessed that he, too, had poured out of the barrel a "little yellow liquid". He did not have to break any seal, he said, he had merely taken off the lid. He said he dumped the plastic drums deep inside the nuclear research compound.

The second team, he said, had suggested he should do the same with the first drum but he preferred to stick with the advice of the first – which was to bury the metal drum under the mud on waste land just outside his home and then lay not only mud but cement over where he had poured the yellow liquid close to the wall of his smallholding a few hundred yards from where the barrels were originally stored.

"They said if I carried out their instructions carefully everything would be all right, so I did," he said, adding that he had been told to have a urine and blood test at the local hospital. Brandishing the notes containing his results, he added: "I feel fine." He claimed that tests done by the second team showed the radiation level had greatly fallen since the first visit.

Mr Karam said: "I made a very big mistake. I can't believe Saddam Hussein let such dangerous things be put so near where people lived. All I am doing now is warning people not to go in there."

According to the IAEA official, "burying drums is not the right way to get rid of a problem which could be a serious danger to human health".

There was not much sign that his advice was being followed. The looting was continuing this week – though mainly of wood and sheets of metal needed for building repairs – from the storage section of the huge compound unguarded by American troops.

According to a man on a road inside the main gateway to the outer compound some of the material was being taken from a storage area where there were drums filled with an evil-smelling liquid.

By contrast, the gates through the four-mile perimeter wire of the inner compound – what remains of the nuclear reactors bombed by the Israelis in 1981 and by the US a decade later – are guarded by soldiers of the US 3rd Infantry. Visitors are told peremptorily to leave the area.But the semblance of security even in the inner compounds is seriously undermined by more than one hole in the fence through which looters – possibly including some much less naïve about what they were looking for than the villagers of al-Wrdiya – have almost certainly passed.

The term "looting" in postwar Iraq covers many activities from organised crime to casual trophy hunting. But what strikes you at Tuwaitha is the level of risk impoverished Iraqis are prepared to discount to acquire the most basic necessities. A 15-year-old boy, Imad Shakr, dragging a 10ft strip of fibreglass and two sheets of metal, said he needed it to repair his family's roof. "I don't know if the area is polluted," he said. "I do know we have a leaking roof at home."