NEW YORK – The United Nations’ chief weapons inspector has called U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) to complain about the impression some had that he was trying to influence the American presidential election.
But Powell told Mohamed ElBaradei (search), the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to steer clear of the election and to stop talking to the press about 377 tons of explosives the IAEA said last week was missing from an Iraqi facility, a U.S. official told FOX News.
The two men had a telephone conversation Friday after ElBaradei was questioned by FOX News’ Jonathan Hunt. ElBaradei told Hunt he was “absolutely not” trying to influence the election.
Hunt caught up with ElBaradei again Monday. But the IAEA head said he wound not comment on a private conversation with Powell.
ElBaradei repeated that it was unfortunate that the missing explosives report had become part of the political debate but there was nothing the IAEA could do about that.
“There is a world outside the U.S. election," he said, adding that matters need to be addressed whatever is going on in U.S politics.
State Department officials Monday said they have not mounted an active campaign to prevent ElBaradei having a third term as the IAEA’s director general. However, the diplomatic agency's spokesman said the United States endorses a two-term limit for U.N. positions
“The issue of a third term, should it present itself, is something we'd have to look at when it becomes an issue,” said deputy spokesman Adam Ereli, adding that the department respects ElBaradei and does not consider its position on third terms as a personal one against the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector.
“Obviously, we've worked very, very closely and very productively on a number of issues of concern to the international community. He is certainly somebody we respect and admire for his dedication and for his integrity. And we will continue to work with him throughout the end of his term,” Ereli said.
ElBaradei announced in September that he would like a third term when a vote comes for his re-election to the post next September at the convening of the next general assembly.
Last month, a senior Iraqi official alerted the IAEA that the explosives had disappeared from the Al-Qaqaa (search) arms storage facility. The IAEA says it has warned the Bush administration since before the war that a Saddam-free Iraq could become a weapons free-for-all.
While U.S. officials did not publicly confirm the explosives had gone missing until after a New York Times report on Oct. 25, the IAEA has had the letter from the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology for nearly three weeks. ElBaredei made a report to the U.N. Security Council on the matter on Oct. 25.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, ElBaradei and his U.N. colleague Hans Blix took few pains to disguise their anger at the Bush administration for its perceived impatience with the weapons inspections process. In turn, Washington accused ElBaradei of working sluggishly in Iraq when he failed to turn up nuclear material.
The last time the IAEA knew with certainty the contents of the Al-Qaqaa bunkers was in January of 2003, when its inspectors logged all the explosives there. The IAEA action report, which was obtained by FOX News, placed the inventory of HMX and RDX explosives at Al-Qaqaa at 221 tons — not 377 tons, as the IAEA reported Monday.
The IAEA believes the explosives were taken, possibly by looters or terrorists, after Saddam Hussein (search) was driven from power, but U.S. officials maintain the explosives were already gone before U.S. troops arrived at Al-Qaqaa shortly before Saddam's defeat.
The Bush administration may have recently gotten support for their claim. Maj. Austin Pearson on Friday announced that a team from his 3rd Infantry Division had destroyed about 250 tons of munitions and other material from the Al-Qaqaa facility after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
While the Pentagon acknowledges it still has not solved the mystery of the missing explosives, it believes Pearson's testimony helps explain what happened to them.
FOX News' Jonathan Hunt and Toni Delancey contributed to this report.