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Villagers sell deadly uranium to the US army at $3 a barrel
Patrick Graham in Al Mansia Sunday October 5, 2003 The Observer
Dhia Ali makes a throwing motion as he tells how he dumped out the blue barrels of powder. The nine-year-old and his brother, Hussein, weren't looking for weapons of mass destruction when they went into the low brown buildings, known to UN weapons inspectors as Location C, near his home last April. They just wanted the blue barrels. The yellow cake powder they poured out and breathed into their lungs - a form of natural uranium - was part of the nuclear programme which, the Iraq Survey Group's recent report claims, somewhat vaguely, was being restarted before the last war. The report won't do much for Dhia or Hussein - they haven't even been examined by a doctor yet.
'If you inhale even a small amount, it stays in your lungs,' said one of the senior scientists who worked on Iraq's atomic programme. He spoke anonymously because, like many of the country's best researchers, he didn't want any trouble from the Americans.
Even the ducks in the canal in the village of Al Mansia, where they dumped the barrels, later tested for increased radiation. When the US army offered a reward of $3 a barrel, the villagers fished them out and sold them.
The report's claim that Iraq was revamping its nuclear programme in such a way that it could constitute any serious threat was described as 'ridiculous' by the scientist. By 1991, when the he left the programme, Iraq had succeeded in producing no more than one kilogram of enriched uranium - 6 to 14 kgs short of a bomb. By 1997, the programme had been exposed and most of its capabilities destroyed.
To produce more would be impossible. Nuclear research, he pointed out, is a massive undertaking and difficult to conceal, especially under sanctions while being monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The report, at least the available declassified version, acknowledges as much. 'These initiatives did not in and of themselves constitute a resumption of the nuclear weapons programme, but could have been useful in developing a weapons-relevant science base for the long term,' it states.
The Iraqi scientist acknowledged that, while Iraq may have already had the theoretical basis for a nuclear bomb, 'they never reached the stage of trying'. Given enough plutonium or enriched uranium, he thought Iraq might have been able to produce a bomb in two to three years. But he doubted that, under sanctions, the country would ever have had access to sufficient material.
Interviewing scientists in Iraq is a tricky business. Through a well-connected intermediary we were turned down by four others. One of them, a leader of a chemical weapons programme we had met shortly after the war, denied ever having heard of us. The last time we talked he said Iraq had failed to stabilise nerve agents to put into warheads and the programme had been abandoned. Now many of the scientists who worked on these programmes have, or want, jobs with the administration and are reluctant to speak openly.
'It was just an excuse to attack,' the nuclear scientist said. 'Now it turns out there is nothing. They talk to everybody, they offer money and still nothing.'
But the search for weapons of mass destruction is really just a distraction from the main task, rebuilding Iraq and keeping the peace. Ask Sheikh Muttar Saheb Neama Al Musawi. Many of people from his village, like Dhia of Al Wardia, returned with barrels from the yellow cake storage facility at Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre.
The Sheikh has been asking for a health centre to keep an eye on the population but, so far, nothing. He strongly advised not talking to the people in the village - many organisations had come and gone but nothing had been done. They were extremely unfriendly, he said, and talked of the growing anger of the population toward the US army in the area south of Baghdad.
'The Americans have done nothing for us. They don't respect our customs, breaking into people's houses and searching their women.The UN would do a better job.'
Asked if he thought the situation would get worse, he said: 'Boom - Iraqis like a balloon waiting to burst.'
Outside Dhia's house, the dust blows across the barbed wire fence from Tuwaitha as his father Ali shows the open sewer in front of his mud brick house where he washed out the barrels of yellow cake. Inside the small dirt court yard where Ali and lives with his wife and six sons, the unemployed labourer shows us his water barrel. 'Poison' it reads, but he says he bought before the war from a friend.
'I worry about my kids - I want somebody to come and look at them,' he says. 'The Americans must come and decontaminate the area. And foreigners must to come and take the nuclear stuff away from the village.'
At the end of last April, Husham Abdul Malik, a former Iraqi nuclear inspector, came to the village and warned the people about the yellow cake. Now he works as a translator with US soldiers who wear radiation patches while guarding Tuwaitha. Standing outside Dhia's house, he looks sceptically at the blowing dust he believes is potentially radioactive.
'The effect of the yellow cake will appear in a year or two. They need medication right now and they are not getting it - all the Americans did was buy back the barrels.'
He advises the villagers to drink a lot of milk because the calcium compounds with uranium.
'No - they will never find weapons of mass destruction. Saddam wanted a bomb but all he did was propaganda,' he says.
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