Syria Says Suspected Nuclear Sites Off Limits to U.N. Inspectors

Syria pledged Friday to cooperate with a U.N. probe of allegations it had a hidden nuclear program that could be harnessed to make weapons but said its military sites would remain off limits — a condition that could hamstring the investigations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency — the U.N. nuclear monitor — already visited Syria in June to examine a site bombed last year by Israel. The U.S. says the site was a nearly finished plutonium-producing reactor.

But diplomats familiar with the issue say requests for further visits that would include onsite inspections of three other locations allegedly linked to the reactor were turned down by Syria after the initial trip. Then — as on Friday — Syria argued that to allow access would compromise the country's military secrets.

"We would like to underline that my government is cooperating with the agency in full transparency," Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria's nuclear program, told a 145-nation IAEA meeting. "However, this cooperation will not be in any way at the expense of disclosing our military sites or causing a threat to our national security."

Any refusal by Syria to permit visits to the suspected sites could spell the end of the IAEA's investigation. Initial results of environmental samples taken at the bombed site by IAEA experts have shown no nuclear link. But that was anticipated — U.S. intelligence said the Syrians had not yet introduced radioactive material into the facility and the Damascus spent months cleaning up the site and encasing it in concrete before allowing the IAEA to visit.

Othman on Friday also challenged Israel to throw open its nuclear facilities to the IAEA. Arab nations repeatedly make that demand of Israel — which is widely believed to have nuclear arms but has a "no comment" policy on the issue.

The meeting — the IAEA's general conference — is expected to formally touch on the issue before it ends Saturday, likely by voting on two resolutions critical of Israel for refusing to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and open its program to IAEA inspection.

Another volatile topic — Syria's bid for a seat on the decision-making board of the IAEA — was defused Friday, when Syria decided to withdraw and cede the position to Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed candidate from the Middle East South Asian region.

Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran's chief delegate to the meeting, said the decision was made to avoid a divisive vote at the meeting, which normally reaches decisions by consensus. But with any vote to be decided by secret ballot, some participants at the meeting suggested they Syrians feared they might lose.