Toxic, Deadly and All Over The Village

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There are still traces of yellow-brown powder around the side of the big rusty drum where Ali Awad stores gasoline. Ali says he bought it from a looter. His neighbors think he took it himself. The 50 gallon drum had been full of heavy yellow powder, Ali recalled, but the looter emptied it onto the floor of the store at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center one day in mid-April when local people literally dismantled Iraq's largest nuclear site. The powder — or yellow cake — could, however, eventually kill Ali and many other locals. It is mined uranium ready for enrichment. Ali dismisses the talk of danger. “People here use the barrels for drinking water, and they're all right,” he says.

The looting of Tuwaitha, 12 miles southeast of Baghdad stunned the U.S. forces. In mid May, U.S. and Iraqi officials toured surrounding villages, offering a "one-off" deal to buy back any looted items for $3 each. They recovered about half of the 256 stolen yellow cake barrels. A local Shiite cleric persuaded his parishioners to hand over more looted items, some possibly radioactive. These are piled haphazardly in the courtyard of a disused school, but the imam, who does not recognize the authority of the U.S., refuses to hand them over without the permission of his superiors.

There is a lot more to recover, some of it highly toxic. Three "radiation sources" (U.S. officials are not sure exactly what, as they are going from sketchy inventories) are still missing. All are potentially lethal. One missing isotope is probably buried in a looter's garden, the U.S. official told TIME. It will eventually be retrieved, he adds. Since the buy back operation, when the officials also warned people of radiation's dangers, other barrels have been spotted floating in a nearby river.

Coalition officials try to look on the bright side. They maintain that any suggestion the missing radiation sources could be used for a radiological or dirty bomb is a "stretch." They add that the looting was spontaneous and disorganized, carried out by people who had no idea what they were stealing. But the looters were often armed and came from villages known for their criminal gangs — "many" looters were killed in clashes with Marines, military sources say. Meanwhile Dr. Faiz Al Berkdar, the Saddam-era director general of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, and a bitter critic of the U.S., claims to have heard that some pilfered isotopes "are already in Iran."

Even now security at the center is flimsy. The 23,000-acre site is protected by just 180 G.I.s. A U.S. officer who visited one of the most tightly secured areas in the center in mid May was jumped by a bayonet-wielding looter. Highly irradiated equipment that survived the looting, like the 23 cesium 137 "pigs," metal sphere-like wrecking balls, are lying in the open air in an area visited by looters "until the last few days or so," a senior U.S. official told TIME. Troops protecting the approach to one of the most sensitive storage areas say that they still intercept a looter a day. Those they catch are held in a sun-baked compound for two days, and then made to do 5 more of manual labor.

The few remaining workers at Al Tuwaitha are upset with U.S. soldiers, whom they fell have failed to protect the center and decontaminate it. A senior engineer, Mehdi Nimaa Tarish, went with a handful of volunteers and laid concrete on the radioactive floor of the store where the yellow cake had been kept, then bricked up its broken windows, he said. The Americans "watched from a safe distance," he said, and gave no assistance.

Al Tuwaitha shut down on April 14th and 15th, center workers say. U.S. marines had been in the area since about the 4th, but, the U.S. military maintains, had neither the manpower nor the time to secure the site. In any case, there were no contingency plans to do so, a senior U.S. official told TIME. Planners had concluded that "there was little there in the way of militarily significant radiation sources" in the research center, the official said. "Looting was not expected and you didn't think that looters would go into storage areas with low-level radiation," he added. But they did.

The villages around are dirt poor, strewn with garbage and stinking of the raw sewage that floods their streets. The local people are "crazy and illiterate," said the engineer Mehdi. Some of the radioactive material was even apparently encased in some 30lbs of metal, seems to have been used to roll bread, U.S. officials say. The favorite use of the barrels was for drinking water. Since the buy back operation and the health warnings that accompanied it, local people have begun to complain of tender skin and other ailments. These could be real or psychosomatic. But villagers have no doubt who will be to blame for any health problems: the Americans. "They deliberately let people cause chaos here," claimed a worker from the local Shiite mosque, Abdul Mehdi, "to take our minds off the political situation." They are, he said, "very clever."