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Iraqis exposed to hazards

In looting N-site, they found barrels and emptied them

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TUWAITHA, Iraq — Villagers living in the low-slung mud houses near Iraq's main nuclear storage site were never sure what went on in the heavily guarded compound, but they knew they weren't supposed to go inside. So that, of course, is exactly what they did when Iraqi troops surrounding the place fled as U.S. forces took Baghdad in April.

Thinking there were riches to be looted, they swarmed across the red-dust grounds of the abandoned compound, smashed doors and windows to get inside and grabbed at the hundreds upon hundreds of barrels they found. Dumping their mysterious yellow contents on the ground, they dragged the blue barrels outside to the cheers of the village's women.

"They got all excited when they saw these barrels. They said get us one for water!" said Youssif Mutasher Shamki, who watched the looting. "They even kept wheat and other food inside."

Now, residents know the frightening truth — that the compound they trashed held hazardous materials, that the barrels contained uranium oxide, or yellow cake, used in the making of nuclear fuel, and that people who ingested it could become dangerously ill. What they don't know is who, if anyone, is going to tend to health problems that might arise and who is going to help clean up the waste that got spread in the looting frenzy.

A team of inspectors from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Commission arrived in Iraq Friday to survey the compound, but U.S. officials have limited the visit to the storage site itself. The inspectors, whose agency has monitored the facility since 1991, will try to ascertain what materials are missing and reseal those still on the premises.

Some U.S. troops and Iraqi health officials have visited villagers in recent weeks. They have helped them cement over areas where yellow cake was dropped, and they bought back scores of the blue barrels for about $3 each. Residents, though, say that is not enough. "This powder, it has been thrown everywhere. It was thrown on the streets. It was flying in the air. Nobody really knew what it was," said Shamki, who worries that months from now, people — especially children who might have played with it — will get sick.

In fact, most of the yellow cake was dropped not in the streets but inside the compound, because the 55-gallon drums were too heavy to drag outside when full, said Husham Abdul Mulik, an Iraqi nuclear inspector who works at the site.

Still, it's clear that plenty made it into the village. A short walk up a sewage-filled canal that runs between homes and the walls of the nuclear site revealed barrels nestled in the tall reeds, apparently rolled into the water by someone eager to unload them. One was marked Al Jesira Sludge, meaning it was nuclear waste that originated in the Jesira plant in northern Iraq, Mulik said. A large white container was marked "radioactive waste."

In Zahir Abdul Ameer's back yard, a round mound the size of a satellite dish marks the spot where a sack of yellow cake landed. Ameer said he doesn't know where the sack came from. It simply appeared there one day in April, he said, and sat untouched in the broiling sun until the bag burst and the contents began to spill out. About two weeks ago, he said, soldiers and health workers came and spread concrete over the yellow grains.

Adnan Girray and his brother, Nabil, said most people thought the material was fertilizer and that nobody was concerned until they saw journalists and soldiers milling around the barrels. The brothers still have their own barrel, though, and insist it's safe because they only use it to hold washing water. Adnan theorizes that all the talk about hazardous material is a ploy by Americans to deflect blame from themselves if Iraqis get sick from effects of U.S. bombs, which he insists are toxic.

"We see the Americans, and they're not wearing any protective shields or gear, but they tell us it's a hazardous site," he said, gesturing toward the soldiers manning the guard towers. "We're really puzzled."