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ElBaradei Locked Horns with US on Iraq

By Louis Charbonneau

Mohamed ElBaradei and his U.N. nuclear watchdog grabbed the world spotlight in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq by challenging Washington's argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

By locking horns with the US administration, ElBaradei, a 63-year-old Egyptian lawyer, made powerful enemies but this did not prevent him winning a third term as head of the Vienna-based International Atomic Agency (IAEA).

By awarding the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize to ElBaradei and the IAEA 60 years after two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, the Nobel committee gives them a much-needed boost in their efforts to fight the spread of nuclear weapons.

"There have been two nuclear shocks to the world already," ElBaradei has said. "The Chernobyl accident and the IAEA's discovery of Iraq's clandestine nuclear weapons program. It is vital we do all in our power to prevent a third."

Having taken over as head of the IAEA in 1997, ElBaradei, who has dealt with nuclear crises in North Korea, Iran and Iraq, has often been the butt of insults. North Korea, for instance, once called him the "cat's paw" of the United States.

He was also accused of leniency with the Iraqis. But the veteran diplomat, who has a doctorate in law from New York University and two decades of experience at the IAEA, dismissed this criticism.

One of his chief achievements is that since the September 11 2001 attacks, ElBaradei has transformed the IAEA from a little-known technical agency into a high-profile U.N. body that is not afraid to take a stand on questions of proliferation.

"Nuclear proliferation is on the rise," he has said. "If the world does not change course, we risk self-destruction."

Following the discovery of Saddam Hussein's clandestine nuclear weapons program in 1991, the agency, as guardian of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), invested heavily in inspection technology.

It also asked countries to sign a new treaty, the Additional Protocol, giving the IAEA the power to conduct more intrusive, short-notice inspections to increase inspectors' ability to smoke out covert weapons activities.

ElBaradei has his critics. Several diplomats in Vienna said on condition of anonymity that ElBaradei and his agency had fallen short of their goals in Asia and the Middle East.

"He was kicked out of North Korea, Iran is pushing ahead with its nuclear plans and they (the IAEA) missed Libya," a Western diplomat told Reuters, adding: "Their big success was being right in Iraq, but very few people actually believed Saddam had a nuclear weapons program."

Affirmation of Nuclear Inspections

David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security think-tank, said ElBaradei's victory would help boost confidence in inspections as a means of avoiding armed conflicts and maintaining peace.

"It is a tremendous affirmation of the importance of international inspections," Albright said.

Before taking over as the IAEA's director general from Swedish diplomat Hans Blix in 1997, ElBaradei ran the legal department of the IAEA.

His third term as the agency's head came after Washington, which had waged a fierce campaign to stop him getting the job after criticizing him for being too soft on Iran, abandoned its opposition to his appointment.

Some diplomats say Washington has yet to forgive ElBaradei for being so outspoken on the lack of evidence of weapons of nuclear weapons in Iraq ahead of the US-led invasion. Stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were never found.

"I've heard people saying I'm more harsh on the Iraqis to prove that I'm not lenient. Others say I'm lenient," he said, adding that he followed "fundamental principles common to humanity irrespective of race, creed or language."

While not Washington's favorite, ElBaradei enjoys wide support among the 139 member states of the IAEA that was set up to ensure the world's nuclear facilities were used safely and for peaceful purposes only.

"I'm not a pacifist," he once said. "I consider myself a pragmatic, practical person who would like to see a world which is safer than the one we have now."


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