U.S. Marines have located an underground nuclear complex near Baghdad that apparently went unnoticed by U.N. weapons inspectors.
Hidden beneath the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission's Al-Tuwaitha facility, 18 miles south of the capital, is a vast array of warehouses and bombproof offices that could contain the "smoking gun" sought by intelligence agencies, reported the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
"I've never seen anything like it, ever," said Marine Capt. John Seegar. "How did the world miss all of this? Why couldn't they see what was happening here?"
Marine nuclear and intelligence experts say that at least 14 buildings at Al-Tuwaitha indicate high levels of radiation and some show lethal amounts of nuclear residue, according to the Pittsburgh daily. The site was examined numerous times by U.N. weapons inspectors, who found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
"They went through that site multiple times, but did they go underground? I never heard anything about that," said physicist David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector in Iraq from 1992 to 1997.
In a 1999 report, Albright said, "Iraq developed procedures to limit access to these buildings by IAEA inspectors who had a right to inspect the fuel fabrication facility."
"On days when the inspectors were scheduled to visit, only the fuel fabrication rooms were open to them," he said in the report, written with Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear engineer who defected in 1994. "Usually, employees were told to take to their rooms so that the inspectors did not see an unusually large number of people."
Chief Warrant Officer Darrin Flick, the battalion's nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialist, said radiation levels were particularly high at a place near the complex where local residents say the "missile water" is stored in mammoth caverns.
"It's amazing," Flick said. "I went to the off-site storage buildings, and the rad detector went off the charts. Then I opened the steel door, and there were all these drums, many, many drums, of highly radioactive material."
Iraq began to develop its nuclear program at Al-Tuwaitha in the 1970s, according to the Institute for Science and International Security. Israel destroyed a French-built reactor there in 1981 and a reactor built by the Russians was destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War.
Hamza testified before Congress last August that if left unchecked, Iraq could have had nuclear weapons by 2005.
Noting that the ground in the area is muddy and composed of clay, Hamza was surprised to learn of the Marines' discovery, the Tribune-Review said. He wondered if the Iraqis went to the colossal expense of pumping enough water to build the subterranean complex because no reasonable inspector would think anything might be built underground there.
"Nobody would expect it," Hamza said. "Nobody would think twice about going back there."
Michael Levi of the Federation of American Scientists said the Iraqis continued rebuilding the Al-Tuwaitha facility after weapons inspections ended in 1998.
"I do not believe the latest round of inspections included anything underground, so anything you find underground would be very suspicious," said Levi. "It sounds absolutely amazing."
The Pittsburgh paper said nuclear scientists, engineers and technicians, housed in a plush neighborhood near the campus, have fled, along with Baathist party loyalists.
"It's going to take some very smart people a very long time to sift through everything here," said Flick. "All this machinery. All this technology. They could do a lot of very bad things with all of this."
Marine Capt. Seegar said his unit will continue to hold the nuclear site until international authorities can take over. Last night, they monitored gun and artillery battles by U.S. Marines against Iraqi Republican Guards and Fedayeen terrorists.
The offices underground are replete with videos and pictures that indicate the complex was built largely over the last four years, the Tribune-Review said.