ElBaradei: Don't prejudge Syrian nuclear program

IAEA chief in closed meeting: All of you know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty.

ElBaradei 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
ElBaradei 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The chief UN nuclear inspector has urged caution against prematurely judging Syria's atomic program by reminding diplomats about false US claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, comments released Tuesday show. The bluntness of remarks by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reflected tensions over whether Syria should be given potentially sensitive nuclear guidance at a time it is being investigated for alleged secret atomic activities. Speaking at a closed meeting of the IAEA's board on Monday, ElBaradei did not mention the United States by name. But his reference to claims that Saddam had a secret chemical, nuclear and biological weapons program - assertions that helped form the US rationale for the invasion of Iraq - made it clear that his criticism was directed mostly at Washington. "There are claims against Iraq, which proved to be bonkers, but only after a terrible war," ElBaradei said after the US and its allies questioned Syria's right to his agency's help in planning a power-producing atomic reactor. "There is one thing called investigation, another called clear-cut proof of innocence or guilt ... and all of you, even if you are not lawyers, know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty," he said. President George W. Bush's administration initially argued that Saddam had to be toppled to stop him from using what Bush claimed were the Iraqi leader's weapons of mass destruction or from selling them to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. But no such weapons were ever found. ElBaradei was among the chief skeptics questioning the claims. A report circulated last week by ElBaradei confirmed that soil samples taken at the site of a building in Syria bombed last year by Israel revealed "a significant number" of uranium particles. The report also said that satellite imagery and other information appeared to bear out US intelligence that the building was a nuclear reactor - one Washington said was nearly completed and almost ready to produce plutonium, a fissile warhead component. Syria denies hiding nuclear activities. But the report strengthened both concerns that it might have something to conceal and arguments from the US and its allies that Damascus should not be offered agency help in planning its civilian reactor. Beyond helping the Syrians develop expertise, the $350,000 aid project would send the wrong signal about a country under investigation by the IAEA, critics like the Americans argued. In Washington, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it was "totally inappropriate, we believe, given the fact that Syria is under investigation by the IAEA for building a nuclear reactor outside the bounds of its international legal commitments." The US also used the Vienna meeting to express its opposition and received backing from the European Union, France, Britain, Australia and Canada. But ElBaradei disagreed, saying there was no legal basis to cancel or postpone the program. Commenting on ElBaradei's scrappy stance, a senior diplomat with good connections to IAEA staff said the agency chief personally sent text messages to key aides telling them to stand tough on the Syria issue. He demanded anonymity because his information was privileged. Supporting Syria are Iran - itself denied technical aid two years ago because it was under UN sanctions for defying Security Council demands to curtail nuclear activities - and other nonaligned nations. Russia and China also back Damascus.