U.S. knocked for withholding info

VIENNA, Austria &

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog chastised the United States on Friday for withholding information on what Washington says was a nuclear reactor being built secretly in Syria with help from North Korea.

International Atomic Energy Agency director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, also criticized Israel for bombing the alleged nuclear facility site seven months ago.

ElBaradei issued a strongly worded statement that reflected his anger about being kept out of the loop about Washington's investigation of the site and the alleged North Korean assistance.

The IAEA said ElBaradei was not told about the information until Thursday, the day U.S. officials briefed Congress about the evidence, which they say includes dozens of photographs taken from ground level and footage of the interior of the building gathered by spy satellites after the Israeli strike in September.

"The director general deplores the fact that this information was not provided to the agency in a timely manner, in accordance with the agency's responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enable it to verify its veracity and establish the facts," said a statement from the IAEA.

In Washington, the State Department brushed aside ElBaradei's complaint.

"The fact of the matter now is this is an issue that is worthy of investigation putting aside these questions of timing," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

The IAEA's mission includes trying to keep nuclear proliferation in check, and it depends on member states for information to carry out that task.

ElBaradei and the Bush administration have clashed before. In the runup to the Iraq war, he challenged U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. In 2005, Washington made a failed attempt to prevent ElBaradei's re-election.

The IAEA promised Friday to follow up on the U.S. intelligence, saying it would "treat this information with the seriousness it deserves and will investigate the veracity of the information."

ElBaradei also criticized Israel's airstrike of the site. Israel has maintained total silence on the issue since the Sept. 6 bombing.

"The director general views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime," the statement said.

The IAEA did not directly criticize North Korea or Syria, but said "Syria has an obligation ... to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the Agency."

Syria denies that it was building a nuclear reactor and insists the site bombed by Israel was an unused military facility.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari pledged Friday to cooperate with the IAEA and suggested that "the main target of the American CIA allegations against Syria is to justify the Israeli attack against the Syrian side."

"We should be very careful and cautious with regard to all these kind of allegations. Anybody could fabricate anything these days," Ja'afari added.

Top U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters in Washington on Thursday said they had high confidence in the judgment that North Korea had aided Syria with its nuclear program and the intention was to produce plutonium. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

However, they said there was no reprocessing facility at the site &

something that would be needed to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel for use in a bomb. That gives little confidence that the facility was meant for weapons development, they said.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said ElBaradei's criticism was "entirely unwarranted" and defended Israel's decision to strike the Syrian site.

"The IAEA was and remains unable to deal with regimes like Syria," he told the AP. "Israel did what was necessary to defend itself, and the U.S. had no obligation to brief the IAEA in such a matter."

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