APn 10/8/98 9:20 PM

Associated Press Writer

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- A nonproliferation advocacy group faulted the U.N. nuclear agency Thursday for ignoring recent claims that Iraq possess nuclear bomb components.

The Nuclear Control Institute also criticized a six-month report by the International Atomic Energy Agency for downplaying the significance of a decision by Iraq that has halted weapons inspections for two months.

"This is the most embarrassing and indefensible of the IAEA reports on Iraq," the group's president Paul Leventhal, said in a statement.

In its report, the IAEA repeated its previous claims that it hadn't detected any prohibited nuclear materials, equipment or activities during inspections over the past six months.

While saying clarifications and inconsistencies about Iraq's nuclear weapons program still need to be resolved, the IAEA said the gaps could be filled over the course of a long-term monitoring program rather than through intrusive inspections.

"These verification activities have revealed no indications that Iraq had achieved its program objective of producing nuclear weapons or that Iraq had produced more than a few grams of weapon-usable nuclear material or had clandestinely acquired such material," the report said.

Last month, a former U.N. arms expert, Scott Ritter, told a U.S. congressional hearing that U.N. intelligence information indicated Iraq has components necessary for three nuclear weapons and that it lacks only the fissile material to make them.

The IAEA's suggestion that nuclear inspections be exchanged for monitoring "is insupportable in light of intelligence," Leventhal said. "It's like putting a convicted felon up for parole who's packing a gun that lacks only bullets."

U.N. arms experts must certify that Iraq has destroyed its long-range missiles and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons before the Security Council will lift sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Iraq halted cooperation with inspectors after the chief inspector, Richard Butler, refused to certify that Iraq had destroyed its banned weapons.

Permanent council members Russia, France and China have strongly advocated switching nuclear inspections over to long-term monitoring, arguing that they have a credible picture of Iraq's nuclear weapons capabilities.

They were expected to have made a push to close the so-called nuclear file this month, based on the IAEA report. But the council last month suspended all regular reviews of U.N. sanctions to punish Iraq for its Aug. 5 decision.

The IAEA report said that in light of the Aug. 5 decision, its inspectors hadn't been able to interview Iraqis about the country's clandestine nuclear program. It said the decision "significantly reduces the effectiveness" of the monitoring program and the level of assurances it can provide.

A team will visit Iraq later this month to discuss the adequacy of Iraq's declarations about its weapons plans and clarify the remaining inconsistencies, the IAEA report said.

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